The Santa Monica, Calif., City Council on March 25 is scheduled to review recommendations covering the fate of Santa Monica Airport (SMO), including options for either partial or complete closure.
The Santa Monica Airport Commission last month approved a recommendation for the city council to approve an ordinance that would “starve” the airport of aviation businesses by permitting all the leases to expire on July 1, 2015, and requiring that new leases on the property be granted only to non-aviation entities, such as art galleries.
The airport commission’s recommendation is one of about a handful of short- and long-term steps that the city plans to discuss at the meeting. Others include the preparation of a preliminary conceptual plan of a smaller airport; look at efforts to minimize impacts of airport operations, such as zoning the airport land to be compatible with surrounding uses; revise airport tenant leases to ensure that “the airport does not again burden the general fund;” continue to seek public input and pursue city control over the use of airport land.
The deliberations over the future of SMO follow a recent decision by a U.S. District Court to dismiss a lawsuit by the city seeking control of the airport and possibly closing it after July 2015.has maintained that the city is bound by a post-World War II agreement – an Instrument of Transfer – to maintain the property as an airport or risk having the rights to the property revert to the federal government. The court agreed with FAA’s position that the city filed the lawsuit after the 12-year statute of limitations had passed for cases involving U.S. interests in property.
“For years, community members assumed that the city could close the Airport in 2015 when [a] 1984 agreement with the federal government will expire,” says a city memo on the March 25 meeting. “However, it is now clear that legal disputes about the city’s authority to close the airport will inevitably extend well beyond 2015, and their outcome is uncertain. And, beyond the legal controversies, some level of environmental assessment would likely be required to close all or part of the airport and that would take time.”
Regardless, city staff believe Santa Monica should lay the groundwork to prepare for a “complete or partial airport closure” if the opportunity arises. Staff is seeking city council approval to “begin formulating work plans related to possible closure.”
These include conceptual renderings of a smaller airport that excludes a western parcel the city believes is not subject to the 1948 Instrument of Transfer agreement. It also includes assessment of on-site contamination that would be necessary for reuse of the land. The staff also wants to begin preparation for zoning the airport for alternate uses, “thereby asserting traditional local control over future land uses.”
Asserting such control, the memo states, would provide as much protection as possible for airport neighbors. The staff is seeking to specifically eliminate flight school leases because “flight school operations create significant and detrimental noise impacts on surrounding neighborhoods and afford a minimal benefit to the community.” The staff is also exploring the potential of limiting or eliminating fuel sales to protect against harmful environmental impacts, the memo adds.
Another option would be to revise leasing policies that would protect both the city’s revenue base and future options. Under this proposal, non-aviation tenants could receive a five-year lease with five one-year renewal options. Aviation tenants would be eligible for one-year leases with two one-year renewal options. “All renewal options would be at the city’s sole discretion,” the city says, adding, “This approach would afford enough stability to lessees to protect the city’s revenue stream during the next several years while the City focuses on achieving resolution of legal issues, mitigating adverse airport impacts, and preparing for potential reuse of the land.”
FAA is expected to watch the city’s actions closely. Randall Fiertz, who leads FAA’s Office of Airport Compliance and Management Analysis, had called the lawsuit a “very, very big case for everybody,” but said the decision was “only one stop in a big battle looming over our heads.”
As for the city’s latest efforts, the FAA says in a statement that it is not in a position to comment on the recommendations. But the agency adds, “In addition to the 1984 Settlement Agreement, the City and the U.S. have entered into numerous grant agreements which provide that the City must operate SMO as an airport for the use and benefit of the public. The City has also in the past recognized its continuing obligations under the Surplus Property Act to operate SMO as an airport.”
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, meanwhile, has been urging airport supporters to actively educate the community about the value of the airport and clear up any misinformation that may be spread. Bill Dunn, AOPA vice president of airports, spoke to a recent meeting of the Santa Monica Airport Association to stress the importance of ensuring the public understands that the airport plays an important role in the community. He notes that the airport has an annual economic impact of more than $250 million and is home to 175 businesses that result in 1,500 jobs.
The association is concerned that airport opponents have a “free pass” to spread inaccurate information and “that needs to stop.”