AOPA, NBAA File Brief Countering Santa Monica Appeal

 - January 27, 2015, 4:02 AM

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and NBAA filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief on January 22 with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District, outlining the associations’ concerns about the City of Santa Monica’s efforts to restrict or close Southern California’s Santa Monica Airport.

The timing for the AOPA/NBAA filing was driven by the FAA’s January 15 “brief for appellees,” which resulted from the city’s October 2013 lawsuit. In that lawsuit, the city claimed it was unaware that a 1948 agreement with the government to operate the airport in perpetuity still applied, following another agreement it made with the FAA in 1984. The city lost that case but appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court, hence the recent filings.

In 1948, Santa Monica regained control of the airport, now encompassing 227 acres, under a Surplus Property Act (SPA) agreement. According to AOPA, “The city regained control of the airport with the understanding that the airport would operate in perpetuity, which is what the SPA required and which was set forth in terms within the airport transfer agreement.” In their brief, the associations argued that the city may try to restrict operations or even close the airport on the expiration of its obligations under the most recent grant assurance. That “would entirely contradict both the overt purposes of the Surplus Property Act and the transfers made pursuant to that law,” they argued.

Wide-ranging Implications

The associations noted that approximately 200 U.S. airports have similar SPA agreements. “The outcome of this case could undermine the national air transportation system by allowing localities to unilaterally renounce their surplus property obligations and piece-by-piece disassemble that system, harming the interests of not just AOPA and NBAA members but of the citizens of the United States generally.”

The city’s moves to restrict or close its airport “would have a detrimental effect on air traffic in the Southern California region and the national airspace system, which in turn would detrimentally impact the members of both associations and the public as a whole,” the brief stated.

The FAA’s brief is asking the court to affirm the dismissal of the city’s suit, in which it was “seeking a declaratory judgment that the covenants in the 1948 Instrument of Transfer do not require the City to operate the property as an airport or give the United States the right to take title if the City ceases to operate the property as an airport.”

The dispute at issue is the city’s claim that it “has unencumbered title to the Airport Property,” that “the claims of the United States to the Airport Property are invalid” and that “the United States has no right, title or interest in the Airport Property.”

According to the FAA’s brief, “The district court correctly held that this suit is time barred. The record plainly shows that decades before this suit was filed, the City knew or should have known that the United States claimed an interest in the Airport Property adverse to the City’s.”

Meanwhile, the City of Santa Monica is moving ahead with plans to restrict leases of airport property to a month-to-month basis and revised to reflect current market rates, beginning July 1. According to a copy of the proposed lease guidelines, the airport will have latitude to refuse certain leases: “The Airport may refuse a lease application if it determines that the proposed use may create a high-intensity use and/or expose the City to additional environmental [pollution], or otherwise poses an unacceptable potential for harm to the public health and welfare or the environment and it’s within the City’s legal constraints [currently] associated with the airport land and its uses as determined by staff and reviewed by the Airport Commission for recommendation to City Council.”