Tensions between Santa Monica officials and the Federal Aviation Administration surfaced again recently following the city’s request for an extensive environmental review of a proposed plan to change the flight departure rules for piston-powered aircraft at the city-owned airport.

Airport officials have reported a number of complaints from homeowners who reside near the airport for several weeks during an FAA-sponsored test for possible modifications of the departure procedures for piston-powered aircraft at the airport.

Complaints of aircraft flying at low altitudes and dozens of reports of excessive noise from the piston-powered planes have also been lodged with airport officials.

The FAA began the study in December and it is set to conclude next month.

In the meantime, Santa Monica city officials have warned the FAA that they will be seeking a complete environmental review of the new procedures if the federal agency is intent on making the changes permanent at the conclusion of the testing period.

In a press release issued May 5th, the city government announced its intention “to aggressively pursue all avenues for the FAA to conduct a full environmental impact study of any permanent change to piston-powered Instrument Flight Rules departure procedures at Santa Monica Airport.

“The city insists on the inclusion of the city and its residents in reviewing any proposed change before final departure procedures are decided. Further, the city is initiating noise modeling of the test’s impact on the affected areas,” the release states.

Congressman Henry Waxman, who represents Santa Monica, also chastised the FAA for its refusal to conduct a public hearing at the request of Santa Monica Airport Director Robert Trimborn before the testing was initiated last December.

Waxman called for a suspension of the testing and requested that FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt instruct his agency to arrange a community meeting.

“The lack of public outreach as these decisions have been made is unacceptable,” the congressman wrote in a letter to Babbitt. “I urge the FAA to immediately suspend the test, reevaluate its proposals for piston-engine instrument flight rules departures and initiate a public process for all flight changes involving the airport.”

Trimborn confirmed the FAA declined to hold a public hearing before initiating the test and he and his staff told the FAA that the flight departures would not be welcomed by many residents.

“We told them that we thought the new departures would have an adverse effect on the residents,” he said.

City Hall representatives were also disturbed with the flight patterns of some of the airplanes.

“Instead of flying on runway heading to the shoreline before making a turn, the test procedure turns single engine IFR departures 40-degrees to the right just southwest of (the airport) after take-off,” the release states. “The exact location varies but generally speaking, aircraft turn to the new heading near the vicinity of the Penmar Golf Course (in Venice).

“This takes the aircraft in the general direction of the Santa Monica Pier and across a large residential area of the city.”

The latest salvo comes months before a federal appellate court in Washington, D. C. will consider Santa Monica’s attempt to prohibit faster jet airplanes from departing and arriving at the municipal airfield.

Homeowners who live near the airport like Susan Hartley welcomed the congressman’s letter.

“I think it’s great that Waxman wrote the letter. It sends a clear message to Santa Monica and the FAA to not ignore the residents’ complaints and concerns,” said Hartley, a former Santa Monica Airport commissioner. “The FAA was clearly not interested in the residents’ complaints. With Waxman involved now, maybe they’ll look at this again.”

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor took issue with the city’s contention that they were not given a detailed explanation of the test and what it would entail.

“The suggestion that the public was somehow kept in the dark about this test is completely false,” Gregor told The Argonaut.

“Before we implemented the test, our regional administrator and air traffic representatives met with the airport director and his staff, as well as the city manager, city attorney and member of the city’s airport board. We fully briefed city officials on what the test would entail.

Gregor continued, “Additionally, we contacted local media, which ran detailed stories on the test before it began. Furthermore, we provided the airport with a detailed, mid-term update on the test results.”

Cathy Larson, chair of the Sunset Park Airport Committee, was grateful that Waxman contacted Babbitt but less hopeful that the FAA would move quickly to rectify any of the complaints.

“It’s always good when the congressman addresses our concerns to the FAA,” Larson said. “But I don’t have a lot of faith in the FAA. They have not acted appropriately in the past, so it will be interesting to see how long it takes (Babbitt) to respond to the congressman’s letter.”

Gregor said there are other ways to keep the city and the residents involved.

“Public meetings are not the only way to do public outreach,” he noted. “However, if the city felt that a public meeting was appropriate, they were free to hold a public meeting on their own.”

Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown took umbrage at the FAA’s refusal to attend a December meeting of the city’s airport commission before the testing began.

“The FAA unilaterally imposed increased flyovers on thousands of Santa Monica residents after standing us up at a promised public hearing to explain and introduce the six-month test,” the councilman said. “Piston-driven planes flying under instrument flight rules now bank over the Sunset Park mesa and the hills of Ocean Park, placing them perilously closer to elevated ground and residential neighborhoods.”

Gregor said any proposed changes to the piston-powered departure procedures would be discussed in June.

“We will forward the test results to FAA environmental specialists, who will review the results and applicable regulations to determine the degree of environmental review that’s required,” he said. “We will follow all applicable laws and regulations in making our decision.”

McKeown was not mollified.

“The issue has now moved to the federal level, where jurisdiction lies,” McKeown, a frequent critic of the FAA, asserted. “The

congressman’s letter makes Santa Monica’s demands for us, and points out how the FAA reneged on a public hearing and promised outreach to residents.”

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