Santa Monica city leaders have decided not to pursue a ban on certain jets at the city-owned airport in federal Supreme Court, ending a three-year battle with the Federal Aviation Administration regarding runway safety.
Members of the city’s legal team as well as a law firm that was hired to argue the case to prohibit aircraft from categories C and D at the general aviation airport, agreed that the possibility of having the highest court in the land hear their appeals was infinitesimal.
Category C aircraft are planes that travel at a speed of at least 121 knots but less than 141 knots, and planes that fall into Category D have speeds of at least 141 knots but less than 166 knots, according to the FAA.
“The chances of the United States Supreme Court granting a review were (very slim),” Assistant City Attorney Joseph Lawrence told The Argonaut. “We thought that it would be a waste of effort and the city’s money.”
The Santa Monica City Council passed a ban on category C and D airplanes March 25, 2008, the initial salvo in what became a protracted legal wrangling over a city government’s ability to prevent certain types of aircraft from using an airfield.
A week later, the FAA won a stay on the ordinance and subsequently prevailed in U.S. District Court. A later appeal of the verdict was denied.
At a series of FAA hearings, the federal government’s position against the ordinance was also upheld, and last year Santa Monica appealed to the state Supreme Court. After losing there, city officials authorized their attorneys to appeal the jet ban case at the federal appellate level.
The Ninth District Court of Appeal in Washington, D.C. denied the city’s petition for review Jan. 21. “The ordinance, which bans all Category C and D aircraft from the airport but permits Category A and B to continue to operate is facially discriminatory,” the court wrote. “Petitioner argues that the FAA failed to consider whether the ordinance is unjustly discriminatory, but this is not the case.”
The U.S. Supreme Court would have been the city’s final legal recourse.
FAA officials contend that their position was centered on firm legal ground. “We were always confident of our legal position on the jet ban issue,” FAA spokesman Ian Gregor told The Argonaut.
Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown echoed Lawrence’s reasons for not pursuing the case in the U.S Supreme Court.
“We still have ongoing safety issues with fast jets on a short runway. Our attorneys made the strongest possible case to the federal court, but the court chose to side with the FAA,” he said.
“We were advised (that) we faced impossible odds in trying to get the Supreme Court to pick up the case for review.”
Residents of Santa Monica’s Sunset Park neighborhood have long been concerned about the possibility of an airplane overshooting the runway – which has happened at other airports – and crashing into their homes.
There are no safety barriers between the runways and some of the residences, and many are less than 300 feet from the runway.
Bill Koontz, the second vice president of Mar Vista Community Council, said he understands why the City Council decided not to pursue the ban.
“After reading the last court ruling, it seemed pretty clear to me that Santa Monica’s chances of winning in the Supreme Court were slim to none,” Koontz said. “After hearing the price tag associated with this case thus far, I can’t say I blame them for dropping it.”
Steven Siry, the president of the Santa Monica Airport Association, is relieved to hear that the jet ban case is over.
“I think it was a frivolous case, at best,” he said. “I think that it will probably save the citizens a lot of money in the form of legal costs that will not be used in a losing battle.”
Gregor said the FAA has continuously offered the city an opportunity to have runway protection at the airport to address their concerns about possible accidents. “We have made repeated offers to help the city pay for installing an Engineered Material Arresting System (EMAS) at one or both runway ends,” Gregor said.
EMAS are beds of crushable concrete blocks that collapse under an aircraft’s weight, slowing the aircraft and helping prevent it from running off runway ends, according to the FAA.
“They provide safety benefits at airports that don’t have the space for standard runway safety areas. EMAS would help prevent so-called ‘runway excursions’ by the largest jets that use SMO,” Gregor said.
The Friends of Sunset Park group has denounced the agency’s offer to install the runway protection device as substandard and it points to other general aviation airports that have had airplanes overrun the runways that did not have residential neighborhoods in close proximity. If there were, the group contends, substantial property damage and potential injuries or fatalities could occur.
The FAA said Santa Monica leaders have refused to accept the federal government’s help with the runway protection.
“Unfortunately, the city has rejected all of our offers to address its stated safety concerns by helping pay to install EMAS. Nevertheless, we remain ready, willing and able to help pay for installing EMAS at Santa Monica Airport,” Gregor said.
FAA officials have also offered to purchase the homes of homeowners who reside close to the airfield.
Siry said an attempt to prevent airplanes from categories C and D would have had an adverse effect on the airport’s and the city’s economies. “The larger planes generate the higher landing fees,” he said.
The airport association president also noted that Santa Monica generates revenue from airport fuel sales.
Koontz said the legal fight between the city government and the federal agency seemed to be a test of wills, while Mar Vista residents and others who live near the airport continue to live with air pollution as well as the potential danger of a runway overrun.
“Neither side seems willing to give an inch and are both willing to spend valuable time and money in the courts to prove it. Meanwhile the larger jets continue to ride the fine line of safety vs. service,” he said. “The FAA and the airport will tell you that everything is safe and under control, while the nearby residents will tell you that it’s scary as hell when those big jets come screaming in just feet from their rooftops.”
McKeown said the city does not plan to abandon its mission to protect its citizens from potential accidents. “Santa Monica will proceed with other efforts to increase safety and reduce air pollution,” the councilman promised. “We continue to value health and safety over the somewhat different interests of the federal bureaucracy.
“We’ve already hiredconsultants and are engaging the community in planning for 2015, when current obligations to the FAA expire.”
The FAA believes the agreement with the city government will expire nine years later in 2024.
Lawrence said another option would be to see if city officials could work with the FAA “to deal with the effects of jets.”
Koontz does not think this will be the end of the line as far as future legal battles between Santa Monica and the FAA, in light of a pending announcement of a potential change in the flight path, which currently heads west over Venice.
Residents of Santa Monica, Mar Vista and Venice, as well as Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Santa Monica) have asked the FAA to conduct an environmental impact report for any proposed flight path changes.
“Is this fight over? Not by a long shot. Everyone involved will just have to pick something else to fight about, and they will,” Koontz predicted.