Santa Monica Airport falls under federal authority but sits on land owned by the city.

Santa Monica Airport falls under federal authority but sits on land owned by the city.

By Gary Walker
With some residents pushing for reduced flight operations at Santa Monica Airport and others calling for the airfield’s conversion to a public park, Santa Monica officials filed a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration last week seeking control of the property.
The U.S. District Court lawsuit asks for a declaration that the city holds clear title to airport land and could resolve conflict over the city’s operating agreement with the FAA.
The FAA and Santa Monica entered into an operating agreement in 1984. The city argues that agreement expires in 2015, but federal officials claim it is valid through 2023.
Santa Monica is also contesting the federal government’s claims that agreements with the FAA obligate Santa Monica to allow the airport to operate in perpetuity or else forfeit its ownership interest to the federal government.
“We need to get these legal questions answered. The community expects us to protect their health, safety and welfare,” Santa Monica Mayor Pamela O’Connor said in a statement about the case. “And, of course, the community’s demands for relief from airport impacts have only increased since last month’s terrible crash.”
On Sept. 29, 63-year-old Mark Benjamin, founder of Santa Monica-based Morely Builders, his 28-year-old son Luke and two others died when their jet crashed into a hangar and burst unto flames.
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
Two years ago, Santa Monica City Council members launched a visioning process in which residents and business owners have been asked through surveys what they would like to see done with the airport property.
City Manager Rod Gould and other city representatives have met with federal officials on several occasions since the visioning plan was announced in an effort to explore possibilities for a voluntary agreement that might modify airport operations to significantly reduce adverse impacts on the community, such as noise and air pollution.
“We met in Washington D.C. many times and conveyed community concerns and proposed possibilities for changes, including operational changes, that could significantly reduce many of the airport’s adverse impacts,” Gould said. “But the FAA representatives were simply unwilling or unable to agree to any changes that could bring significant relief to airport neighbors.”
Frank Gruber, who is spearheading a movement called Airport2Park to transform the airport into a public park, praised the city’s decision to sue.
“Airport2Park is excited that the city has taken this proactive measure to reestablish its control of the future of the airport land,” Gruber wrote in an email, “so that in the future a great park can be built on the site to serve all residents, rather than only the few who now benefit from the airport.”
It isn’t clear, however, what changes city officials hope to make.
But last year city leaders did unanimously approve a motion by Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown to explore the city’s legal rights to close the airport.
“Our long-suffering residents and those calling for alternative future uses for current airport land now know that your city council has been working on this consistently and responsibly, through the best legal channels, to confirm our rights and move us forward,” McKeown said.
The Oct. 30 lawsuit is the second time in recent years that Santa Monica has clashed with federal officials in court over the airport.
In March 2008, the council voted to implement a ban on certain types of aircraft from their airfield.
The FAA challenged the ban and eventually prevailed in the California Supreme Court ruling.
The director of a local environmental group who has been critical of city leaders praised the decision to file suit for control over the airport.
“If this lawsuit will get us the results we need quickly, then we applaud the city for taking this action,” Martin Rubin, director of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution, in a statement. “Every day that goes by that residents downwind from the airport are inundated with toxic jet fumes is another day that public health is put in jeopardy, and it’s been going on for more than two decades.”
State Sen. Ted Lieu (D- Marina del Rey), whose district includes Mar Vista neighborhoods close to the airport, also supports the city’s lawsuit.
“I commend the city of Santa Monica for filing suit against the FAA,” Lieu said.
“There are undisputed impacts on the city and surrounding residents, including noise and air pollution and safety issues as a result of how close the runway is to neighboring homes,” said Lieu. “I believe the courts will once and for all determine the city, as the owner of the airport, has every right to determine the direction of its future. With clear direction from the courts, I look forward to working with the city to minimize or eliminate the impacts of this airport on my constituents.”
Gary@argonautnews.com

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