Santa Monica City Council Votes On Plan To Restrict Aviation At SMO

 - May 1, 2014, 2:50 AM
Santa Monica Airport is located in the heart of the city, and some neighbors have raised concerns about noise and emissions.

The city of Santa Monica’s efforts to discourage aviation activity at Santa Monica Airport (SMO) have had the desired effect. Piston aircraft operations have dropped 29 percent since landing fees were raised 2.5-fold last year and made applicable to all airport users, including based tenants. At the same time, the effect on business aircraft users of the airport doesn’t seem as profound. One corporate operator told AIN that even though his company is now paying almost three times as much for landing fees, company travelers still prefer SMO to other alternatives and will keep using the conveniently located airport as long as they can.

While members of the Santa Monica, Calif., city council signaled their intent to continue pursuing efforts to try to mitigate the effects of the airport in a unanimous vote at a March 25 council meeting, an initiative is under way to put the issue to vote by residents of the city of Santa Monica.

During the city council meeting, after four hours of comments by 98 members of the public–by AIN’s count split exactly 50/50 between anti- and pro-airport proponents– the council members voted to support a proposed Airport Concept Plan that would close the door to most aviation-related uses of the airport land. The plan would also pursue efforts to assert the city’s right to control the airport property, prepare for “possible closure of all or part of the airport after July 1, 2015,” examine possible rezoning of the airport and changes to leasing policies to exclude many aviation uses, reduce lease terms to a maximum of three years and keep seeking community input on future use of the airport land.

While a 1948 Instrument of Transfer agreement with the federal government stipulates that SMO be operated as an airport in perpetuity, the city believes that a 35-acre parcel on the west side of the airport is not subject to that agreement. That parcel was added in 1949 and it carries 2,000 feet of the 4,973-foot-long SMO runway. Part of the city’s efforts to make the airport less useful include possible closure of that 2,000-foot section of runway, and this would make the airport inaccessible to many jets.

Nearly all airport leases expire on July 1, 2015. This is also the date when a 1984 agreement ends, and this agreement obligated the city to keep operating the airport until then. Although city officials believe that the 1948 agreement doesn’t prevent them from closing the airport, they acknowledge that the city accepted FAA grant money in 1994, and that more money was added to that grant in 2003. There are questions about whether the 20-year requirement to keep operating the airport after receiving a grant expires in 2014 or 2023, but city officials clearly believe that grant agreement will soon no longer apply.

During the council meeting, pro- and anti-airport proponents politely took their turns speaking for up to two minutes each before the city council members. Airport business owners bemoaned the loss of jobs that will come with reduced operations at the airport and the constraints of the new leases, which will be limited to a three-year term with one-year renewals. Part of the city’s plan is to rezone the airport property for light manufacturing and studio uses, which may eliminate many of the current aviation-oriented uses of current leaseholders, such as fuel sales and flight schools. Those against the airport cited noise, pollution and safety as their chief concerns.

Airport commission chairman David Goddard told the council that aviation businesses at SMO generate about $1.2 million revenue for the city annually, while non-aviation tenants bring in $2 million a year. He suggested that after July 1 next year the city plans to take over the property currently leased by Atlantic Aviation, which serves the business jet market at the airport. “On July 1, 2015 if all the aviation leases expired,” he explained, “we would lose $1.2 million. Atlantic Aviation currently collects about $4 million from its tenants and it pays the city about $200,000. On July 1, 2015 we will recover the improvements made by Atlantic Aviation and that income stream will be ours.” He didn’t mention what will happen to that revenue stream if the city decides to chop off 2,000 feet of runway or if it shuts down fuel sales.

According to the city staff recommendation report that supported the Airport Concept Plan, “For years, community members assumed that the City could close the Airport in 2015 when the 1984 agreement with the federal government will expire. 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.”

The Airport Concept Plan outlined the next steps for the city: “Once council gives direction, staff will effectuate the specified leasing policy, assess options for minimizing adverse airport impacts in the short term, and begin the preliminary steps toward full or partial airport closure. Staff will report back to Council and the public this year.”

As council member Kevin McKeown explained to AIN, “Closure is not the inevitable outcome of our initiating an Airport Concept Plan; the only outcome we categorically ruled out at the outset is development on that land other than the most low-impact uses. Santa Monica owns the land, and with the expiration of the existing agreement for use with the FAA our community wants to consider options.”

Asked for its views of the SMO issue, the FAA provided the following statement to AIN: “In addition to the 1984 Settlement Agreement, the city and the United States 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.”

Public Comments

Edward Story, California Pilots Association vice president of the region that includes SMO, pointed out that while many residents are lobbying to turn the airport into a park, “The unstated objective is to get rid of the airport. This is the last big piece of flat land in Santa Monica on the west side. So who is anybody trying to fool? That’s going to be developed if the airport is taken away.”

NBAA regional representative Stacy Howard said, “NBAA believes that the airport is an important asset to the city and to the region and should continue to be operated in its present form and that the city has grant- and deed-based obligations which require that. The 1948 Instrument of Transfer and the grant assurances both prohibit economic discrimination as well as exclusive rights. And for that same reason, the city cannot prohibit certain aeronautical activities, including aircraft training and operations essential to the airport services such as fuel.”

Kim Davidson, owner of maintenance provider Kim Davidson Aviation, is concerned about the loss of jobs for his 12 employees. “I’m here to represent them and all the other businesses at Santa Monica Airport,” he said. “Let us work with you and put together one of the best airports in the U.S.”

“I wonder how many timely medical flights have been made that have allowed the folks in Santa Monica and West LA to have new corneas, new kidneys, new livers and new hearts?” asked David Fournier, a former member of the UCLA organ transplant team. “Between UCLA and Cedars-Sinai we have the largest solid-tissue transplant program in the entire U.S. You just cannot get a new kidney, heart, liver from Red Bluff, Barstow or Placerville by commercial air or ground transportation in time, but you can do it in a small airplane. This airport is an unappreciated lifeline. Don’t throw away this lifeline.”

AOPA v-p Bill Dunn said, “That the city continues to fail to recognize Santa Monica airport as a valuable community asset, an economic engine for the local community and continues to look for ways to restrict the airport is disappointing in the least. Aircraft are indeed quieter, more efficient in burning fuel and providing less pollution to the environment and less noise pollution to the community. This airport is the property of every resident in the city of Santa Monica. We know that voters in the city of Santa Monica are supportive of the airport and believe city actions are a disservice to them.”

Elly Fry, who lives three blocks from the east end of the airport in the City of Los Angeles, said, “…a nice ocean air blows all the pollution from the airport right over our homes. In fact, when a jet lands right over our head, a haze of pollution covers our area. The polluted air gets into our nose and throat, we rush into the house and close the windows.”

“I don’t understand why the pilots aren’t better neighbors,” said Santa Monica resident Robert Thane. “I don’t feel that they follow the fly-friendly rules. I support the direction here, which is to make the airport smaller or perhaps even close it.”

Judy Russell, a Venice resident on the west side of the airport, agreed with Thane. “The pilots obviously don’t care about us. Living within the romance of flying, they don’t think about how it affects our lives every day. The jet flights are more and bigger than ever. And then there are the plane crashes, three within just a year. Can you imagine living around the flight path? Every takeoff you hear becomes terrorism in addition to the noise. Will this one make it or not? It’s like living in Tel Aviv with the suicide bombers.”

“Aviation represents just one of 42 industry sectors at Santa Monica Airport,” said Santa Monica resident John Fairweather, “and with a total of 178 jobs is 19 percent of the employment. The data shows that aviation benefits could be replaced by a single medium-sized office building. The truth is, the airport’s an economic disaster. General aviation airports are closing at the rate of one a week. Why not here? The truth is, we can and will succeed in closing this airport.”

“As a resident and homeowner in Santa Monica,” said Jan-Peter Flack, “I’m in favor of closing the airport as soon as legally possible. The FAA represents a minority interest that we as a community should challenge. If a freshly fueled jet were to crash right after takeoff, it could turn an entire city block into a flaming inferno. Our health and safety are not negotiable. Not even in the face of a federal agency that seems more concerned about serving its corporate clients than the general public. Pressure from special-interest groups should not weaken our resolve to claim our land back and use it as we residents see fit.”