A Part 16 complaint about Santa Monica Airport (SMO) was filed on July 2 with the FAA by AOPA, NBAA, airport businesses, local aircraft owners and a corporate operator that often flies into the Southern California airport. The complaint seeks to settle the issue of when the city, which owns and operates the 227-acre airport, is no longer subject to grant assurance obligations that require it to keep the airport open. While the city believes that its obligations expire on July 1 next year, the complainants claim that a 2003 request by the city to amend the last grant agreement extended the period of time that the airport must remain open to August 2023.
According to the complaint, “The complainants’ businesses and operations already have been, currently are, and will continue to be adversely affected by the city’s repeated public announcements of its intention to close or to significantly restrict the airport and its operations after July 1, 2015, which effectively discourages investment in and commitment to the airport by current and prospective tenants and users. Formal confirmation of the city’s grant assurance obligations is essential to prevent further, possibly fatal, erosion of the airport’s viability and availability for all users and the general public.”
In addition to AOPA and NBAA, the complainants include Krueger Aviation, an aircraft sales company; flight school Justice Aviation, which has operated at SMO for 21 years; maintenance provider Kim Davidson Aviation, which employs 11 people; Citation II and MD500 owner Aero Film, a producer of television commercials, which also has offices at the airport; aircraft owners Youri Bujko and James Ross; pilot and actor Harrison Ford, who keeps a number of airplanes at SMO, including a Citation Sovereign and Bell 407; and Paramount Citrus Aviation, the Bakersfield, Calif.-based flight department for agricultural firm Paramount Citrus. The company’s fleet averages about 235 operations a month at the airport.
Part 16 proceedings are formal complaints filed by parties “substantially affected by the alleged noncompliance” and will be investigated by the FAA Office of Airport Compliance “if there appears to be a reasonable basis for further investigation.”
Closure Plans Outlined in 1981
The city and its airport commission have a long history of attempts to close and restrict operations at SMO, according to the complaint, including a previous Part 16 effort. A 1981 city council resolution–No. 6296, which has never been rescinded–stated: “It is the policy of the City of Santa Monica to effect the closure of Santa Monica Municipal Airport as soon as possible and to devote the property on which it is located to its highest and best use, consistent with the needs of the city for a continuous base of revenue, for provision of affordable housing, for parks and open space, and for an environment consistent with the city’s generally residential character.”
The city at one time banned jets, a decision that was overturned, unsuccessfully tried to ban Class C and D jet operations, explored ways to close 2,000 feet of the runway and shut down fuel sales and flight schools, raised landing fees substantially and outlined plans to end all airport leases by July 1, 2015, and to issue new leases with a maximum three-year extensions.
In a letter to the city’s mayor, NBAA COO Steve Brown wrote: “These short terms are unjustified and do not appear to comply with the airport’s federal obligations. Generally, airport tenants are entitled to long-term leases at an airport–and in the case of KSMO, Airport Improvement Program grant assurances require it to be operated as an airport through 2023, and the terms of the 1948 Instrument of Transfer further require it to be operated as an airport in perpetuity.”
“The continuing attempts by the city of Santa Monica to close its community airport fly in the face of their legal obligations and disregard the importance of the airport as a general aviation gateway to Southern California,” said NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen. “On behalf of our members, many of whom would be impacted if the airport closes, NBAA will continue to support all efforts to keep SMO open and accessible for those who rely on it.”
“Santa Monica Airport is a vital and historic component in the California and national aviation systems and must remain open,” said AOPA president Mark Baker. “The airport generates $275 million in local revenue and supports 1,500 jobs, and we know that the vast majority of Santa Monica residents regard it as an asset to their city. The political games played by the city have gone on too long, and we’re hopeful that this Part 16 filing will be one more successful effort in preventing the city from closing the airport in favor of redevelopment.”
A Long History of Legal Efforts
The recent Part 16 complaint is just one among many recent legal efforts involving SMO. In late June, Santa Monica resident and airport proponent Christian Fry filed a complaint alleging a conflict of interest by airport commission chair David Goddard and commissioner Stephen Mark, who own houses near SMO that are “directly under the flight path for most departing aircraft. In spite of their obvious economic interests, they have used their official positions as Airport Commissioners as tools in a years-long effort to close the Airport, or failing that, to severely restrict its operations.
“Any governmental decision that resulted in closure of the airport or significant restrictions on its operations would bring a substantial economic benefit to each commissioner in the form of increased values of their real properties. Their financial conflicts of interest are clear. As set forth in greater detail [in the complaint], Goddard has participated in or used his official position to influence governmental decisions affecting his real property interests at least 37 times. Mark has done so at least 35 times.”
According to the complaint, a 1994 Booz-Allen & Hamilton study “found that values of otherwise comparable houses differed by as much as 15 percent between neighborhoods experiencing airport noise and other ‘quiet’ neighborhoods. It also found that the percentage effect of noise on residential property values was substantially greater in high-priced neighborhoods than it was in lower-priced communities.”
Homes near SMO sell for $1 to $2 million, and realtor Tami Pardee, who spoke at an SMO airport commission meeting earlier this year, said a group of real estate agents she belongs to believes that closing the airport would cause prices to grow by 20 percent.
Airport commission chair Goddard told AIN that he doesn’t believe that Fry’s complaint is sustainable, because there are more than enough homes in the area affected by the airport to meet the 10 percent threshold in California Code of Regulations Section 18707: “For real property interests, the decision affects a significant segment of the public generally if it affects: a) 10 percent or more of all property owners or all residential property owners in the public official’s jurisdiction; or b) 5,000 property owners or residential property owners in the public official’s jurisdiction.”
Lon Sobel, a local pilot, attorney and law school professor, examined Goddard’s statement and the Fry complaint. He found that Goddard is assuming that all residences within zip codes 90404 and 90405 are affected by the airport, while Fry’s complaint “relies on the boundaries of what is known as the ‘Airport Influence Area’ as determined by the L.A. County Airport Land Use Commission.” This area encompasses many fewer homes than Goddard’s two zip codes, and thus likely fewer than the 10 percent threshold in Section 18707. “If the Airport Land Use Commission’s boundaries are the relevant area,” Sobel explained, “then [Fry] is likely right: Goddard and Mark do have disqualifying conflicts.”
Commissioner Mark provided this explanation: “The question of conflict of interest as it applies to me has come up before and at the time the Santa Monica City Attorney concluded I am not in violation of [Fair Political Practices Commission] standards. Nonetheless, I have no problem with the FPPC looking into Mr. Fry’s complaint and if it decides he is correct, I will of course resign.
“Let me add that when someone volunteers to join a Neighborhood Watch, raise money to improve a local library branch, petition his city for traffic calming, etc., I imagine his or her hope is to improve the quality of the neighborhood. It certainly makes sense to say that when neighborhoods are improved, property values rise. If Mr. Fry is suggesting the only people who should properly get involved in neighborhood improvements are those who have nothing to gain from them, I have to wonder who exactly he thinks are the right people for addressing community concerns.”