is asking a U.S. district court to dismiss a lawsuit by the city of Santa Monica, Calif., seeking control over Santa Monica Airport, saying the case is invalid because it exceeds a statute of limitations.
The agency further argues that the city is bound by a post-World War II agreement (a 1948 Instrument of Transfer) that requires the continued operation of SMO as an airport, and that the city agreed with that assessment long ago in its own legal findings.
But in a response filed Jan. 10 to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the agency’s brief does not specifically address a 1984 settlement agreement between FAA and the city that calls for Santa Monica to continue operating SMO until July 1, 2015. The city believes that as a result of the settlement agreement, it is free to close the airport if it chooses after that date.
The city’s lawsuit, filed Oct. 31, argues its ability to make that determination, saying it has “unencumbered title to the airport property and its ability … to use the airport property as it chooses.”
The city’s lawsuit has captured the attention of the aviation community because at stake is not only the fate of SMO itself, but potentially up to 200 airports subject to similar post-World War II agreements. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) says the fight over Santa Monica is one that the general aviation community cannot afford to lose, because it could set off a domino effect of similar actions in other communities.
The airport has been the subject of controversy within the local communities for decades, and the city has on several occasions tried to either restrict or ban outright certain operations. The city has turned to the courts and lawmakers for help. But its efforts have largely been rebuffed by FAA.
FAA asked the court to dismiss the case in its entirety when it meets on Feb. 10. Since the lawsuit involves a recorded real estate transfer that occurred more than 65 years ago, FAA contends the city has brought the lawsuit too late. Real estate statutes permitting lawsuits involving U.S. interests in property must be filed within 20 years of learning of the federal government’s interests, FAA states. “[The city’s] knowledge in the 1940s, and in the decades since, of the transaction giving rise to its claim here squarely triggered the … statute of limitations.”
FAA disputed the city’s argument that it has violated its due process rights by demanding SMO be operated in perpetuity. The city argues this amounts to “a taking by the U.S. without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment.” But the agency argues that it has not taken “and is not about to take” possession of the airport property.
The 1948 Instrument of Transfer provides an option for the U.S. to obtain title and possession, FAA says, adding this option only takes effect if the “airport property is not used as an airport.” This has not occurred, FAA says.
FAA also says the city does not attempt to show that it has suffered an economic loss as a result of the 1948 Instrument of Transfer. The agency points out that the property is to be used for “public airport purposes for the use and benefit of the public.”
As for the city’s claim that the FAA “is commandeering the city and its officials to act for the purposes of the U.S. in violations to the Tenth Amendment,” FAA argues that the city’s argument is “unripe.” FAA claims the 1948 Instrument of Transfer was conducted properly under the Surplus Property Act.
The city and federal government entered into leases in 1941 for the use of the airport – once called Clover Field – to aide in the country’s defense. From 1941-1946, FAA says, the government “extensively improved Clover Field,” including hangar construction and runway improvement.
After the war, FAA says the city wrote a letter requesting that the War Assets Administration turn over Clover Field to the city “subject to such conditions that the administrator may desire to impose under the provisions of the Surplus Property Administration.”
The War Assets Administration in 1947 determined that the leasehold interests, including the improvements, should be disposed of under the Surplus Property Act. This led to the 1948 Instrument of Transfer, which includes a measure stating “that no property transferred by this instrument shall be used, leased, sold, salvaged or disposed of by [the city] for other than airport purposes without the written concern of the civil Aeronautics Administrator.” The city in 1948 passed a resolution accepting the Instrument of Transfer.
FAA says it has on three separate occasions released parcels of land from the conditions of the Instrument of Transfer. But the property itself is still subject to it, something that the city attorney found in 1962, as did the California Office of the Attorney General in 1975. In 1962, the city attorney found the covenants of the Instrument of Transfer “compel the conclusion that the city must continue to operate the airport, and that the city cannot legally unilaterally, on its own motion, abandon the use of the Santa Monica Airport as an airport.”
More than a decade later, the Santa Monica city attorney tried to argue that the Instrument of Transfer might be voidable under contract law, FAA says. But the California attorney general’s office was not persuaded, concluding that “it is apparent that the city has entered into numerous contracts and leases wherein it has contracted its rights to deal freely with the airport property and its uses as an airport.”
While the FAA’s response covers the city’s arguments surrounding the Instrument of Transfer and whether the agency has violated its constitutional rights, it does not address the city’s claim that the subsequent 1984 agreement “releases the city of any obligation to operate the airport property as an airport after July 1, 2015.”
FAA and the city reached the agreement after the city had attempted to ban jets and helicopters from the airport in the 1970s. Those attempts and other efforts to curb operations at the airport led to complaints filed against the city to FAA. This ultimately led to the 1984 settlement under which the city would continue operating SMO as an airport through July 1, 2015. “There is no mention in the 1984 agreement that the city must operate the airport in perpetuity. Nor is there an assertion that the FAA had a property interest in the airport property,” the city states.
While FAA did not address it in its lawsuit, the agency has in the past stated its belief that the 1984 agreement does not override the Instrument of Transfer. Aviation groups have made similar assertions.
AOPA and other groups have argued that the airport is a critical reliever in the Los Angeles region and is also of historic significance. It opened as a landing strip in 1917 and later became the city for Douglas Aircraft Company to produce test military and civilian aircraft, including the DC-3 and DC-4. The airport at one time reached a high of 356,000 annual operations and now supports more than 100,000 operations. AOPA notes that 270 aircraft are based there and estimates it generates more than $200 million in economic benefit to the local economy.
AOPA General Counsel Ken Mead calls the government’s brief “compelling, and we agree that the case is without merit and should be dismissed.” He adds, “These issues have been exhaustively researched, and like it or not, the city is obligated to keep the airport open under the terms of its original agreement in taking the airport back after the war, and those terms accord with the multiple agreements the city has made through the years.”