Last night the Santa Monica City Council took the next step toward positioning Santa Monica Airport (SMO) for possible closure, agreeing unanimously to pursue leases that could last the shortest practical amount of time, yield the most revenue for the city and provide the most flexibility.
Following a packed five-hour hearing at which 125 people asked to make statements, the city council approved a series of scaled-back measures that would continue the city’s efforts to explore legal and other options to gain ultimate control over the airport’s fate. The city also set in motion a “transition,” agreeing to three-year leases for certain major leaseholders, including Atlantic Aviation, but essentially seeking month-to-month leases on properties that reside either on non-aviation parcels or on parcels that the city believes it can gain control of sooner.
The city has an underlying goal of breaking up most of the nearly 400 subleases and managing them directly through a combination of a broker and/or property manager. Some will remain as subleases, but the city is taking over two primary Atlantic Aviation tenants (BMW-Audi Design and Milstein) and intends to raise the cost of their existing leases to market rate. At the request of council, city staff agreed to insert cancelation clauses into the leases.
The city’s intent is to word the leases as flexibly as possible to fend off legal challenges and discrimination claims and clearly limit the terms on all but the part of the airport the city believes is most subject to federal control. Council members want to give non-aviation and cultural tenants the option for longer leases. City staff said three-year leases would ensure a revenue flow while the city works through legal challenges to gain control of the airport’s fate.
But the council declined to act on recommendations to shut down the entire airport or portions of it, impose new regulations such as a jet ban or pursue environmental restrictions. The council did not explicitly discuss a proposal to close 2,000 feet of the runway, but the segment in question is located in a section where the city is offering only month-to-month leases. This leaves the runway vulnerable to partial closure.
The city notes that many have pushed it to take a “Meigs Field” approach since the FAA took little action after Chicago Mayor Richard Daley had that airport bulldozed into destruction. “This line of argument is appealing, but it does not withstand legal scrutiny,” the city said in a report. The staff acknowledged that “the city will not have full control of the land that is now used for the airport unless and until legal disputes…are resolved in court.” The city report added that this will take several years “but resolution will eventually come.”
The council’s actions ignored the objections of aviation groups such as NBAA, which cautioned that the measures might be illegal. The association says it will monitor and pursue all available options to protect the airport’s future.
One resident notes that for many businesses “the future has been tossed in the wind. It’s sad and frustrating.”