A federal judge sided with and dismissed the city of Santa Monica’s lawsuit to secure control over the fate of Santa Monica Airport in California.
The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California agreed with FAA’s argument that the city brought its case past the 12-year statute of limitations for cases involving U.S. interests in property. The ruling came only about a month after FAA filed a motion for dismissal, and just days after the court had informed the parties that it did not need to hear oral arguments, and that it could decide on the basis of the filed briefs.
General aviation advocates are pleased with the decision, but also remain cautious about the future of the airports. National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) President and CEO Ed Bolen warned that “we must remain vigilant and focused in our work to preserve access to this airport and all airfields in our nation’s aviation system.”
Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association President Mark Baker notes that while the city “was stopped in its tracks yesterday in its most recent effort to strangle Santa Monica Airport” the association “fully expect[s] the city to make another run at closing Santa Monica Airport.”
The city says it is evaluating the ruling and its options.
“Of course, we are disappointed,” says City Attorney Marsha Moutrie. “But there is likely much work to come, and the attorneys representing the city are already looking forward and focusing our energies on the city’s options.”
The city filed the lawsuit on Oct. 31, arguing it has “unencumbered title to the airport property and its availability ... to use the airport property as it chooses.” The city had been pushing to have the option of closing the airport if it chooses after July 2015.
FAA argued that the city must continue operating the airport under a 1948 agreement – an Instrument of Transfer. That post-World War II agreement would give the government the option of taking control of the airport property if the city ceases operating an airport there.
FAA moved for dismissal of the city’s case, arguing that it was filed past the 12-year statute of limitations. Santa Monica, however, argued that the case was well within the statute of limitations because FAA ostensibly did not lay claim to the airport until 2008 under a separate lawsuit.
Industry leaders have been watching the case closely, fearing that because as many as 200 airports have similar Instrument-of-Transfer agreements, a ruling in favor of the city would have paved the way for similar actions at other airports.
NBAA and AOPA jointly filed an amicus brief backing FAA’s case, warning that “the consequences [of a ruling in favor of Santa Monica] could be to open up an opportunity for the owners of hundreds of other public use airports to consider the diminution or elimination of their operations – potentially leading to the substantial crippling of the nation’s air transportation infrastructure.”
FAA had called “implausible, if not preposterous,” the city’s arguments that it was unaware of FAA’s claim to SMO until 2008 and therefore was within the statute of limitations.
In its ruling, the court agrees that the “record unquestionably demonstrates that the city knew, or should have known, that the U.S. claimed an interest in the airport property as early as 1948.” The Instrument of Transfer “expressly” provides that if the property is used for reasons other than an airport that rights of the property would revert to the federal government, the court maintains.
The court further states that the city had demonstrated its awareness of the U.S. interest in the property on several occasions. It had asked the U.S. to release parcels of land around the airport property on three occasions, the first of which dates back to 1952. The city’s attorney in 1962 also issued an opinion concluding that “the city cannot legally, unilaterally, on its own motion, abandon the use of the Santa Monica Municipal Airport as an airport.”
The court says it “concludes that the city knew, or should have known, that the U.S. claimed an interest in the Airport Property in 1948, sufficient to trigger the statute of limitations.”
The court also disagreed with Santa Monica’s argument that a 1984 settlement agreement with FAA represented the agency’s “clear and unequivocal abandonment” of its claim on SMO. The settlement agreement, the result of a dispute over restrictions the city had attempted to impose at the airport, had called for the city to continue operating SMO as an airport until July 1, 2015.
The city states that under the agreement it is only required to operate the airport until that point. But the court found that “contrary to the City’s argument, this provision does not provide that the city is only required to operate SMO as an airport until July 1, 2015, and it does not have any provision governing the city’s obligations to operate SMO as an airport after July 1, 2015.” The court said the settlement agreement does not address the 1948 Instrument of Transfer. “Accordingly, the terms of the settlement agreement are entirely consistent with the city’s obligations under the Instrument of Transfer, and certainly do not constitute a clear and unequivocal abandonment of the U.S. interest in the title to the airport property.”
The court notes that permitting the lawsuit to move forward will help the city evaluate the airport’s future, and “as much as the court would like to address the merits of the city’s claims, the court reluctantly concludes that it would be constitutionally impermissible to do so.”
The battle of Santa Monica spans decades, particularly as development grew to the airport’s borders. The city has attempted numerous times to restrict operations and/or impose noise restrictions, only to be mostly rebuffed by FAA. Key city leaders have stated a desire to close the airport altogether.
But the associations call the airport a “significant reliever” in the Los Angeles basin area with close to 100,000 annual operations. They also stress the economic importance of the airport with about 175 mostly small businesses based there, employing close to 1,500 workers and accounting for about $275 million in total annual output.