A federal judge reinstated an earlier ruling that keeps in place an order that will prevent the Santa Monica city government from implementing an ordinance to regulate the kinds of aircraft that can use its municipal airport.
The judicial order, issued by U.S. District Judge George H. Wu on Friday, May 16th, a day after hearing legal arguments from Santa Monica attorneys and the lawyers from the federal government, will allow Category C and D airplanes to continue to fly in and out of Santa Monica Airport.
The Santa Monica City Council crafted the ordinance in March that would have banned faster and larger airplanes that many city officials and nearby homeowners feel have the potential to overrun the runway and crash into one of the neighborhoods that ring the city owned-airfield.
Currently, there are no safety protections at either end of the runway, and many residences lie within 300 feet of the airport.
Category C aircraft are classified as airplanes that travel with an approach speed of 121 knots or greater, but less than 141 knots. Category D airplanes have speeds of 141 knots or greater, but less than 166 knots, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). (One knot is 1.15 miles per hour.)
The FAA filed a cease-and desist order to enjoin Santa Monica from enforcing the ban on April 24th, the day the ordinance was scheduled to go into effect. The following day, representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Transportation joined the FAA in filing a temporary restraining order to prevent the implementation of the ordinance in the U.S. District Court Western Division.
Wu, who also heard the earlier motion, granted the FAA’s request, setting the stage for the May 15th hearing.
“The city has requested that this preliminary injunction order be stayed. That request is hereby denied,” Wu wrote. “The order is to take effect immediately.
“The findings of fact and conclusions of law upon which this court bases its decision to grant the preliminary injunction are delineated in its order granting the temporary restraining order filed on April 28th and as supplemented in part by the court’s statements on the record at the [temporary restraining order] and preliminary injunction hearings.”
FAA Western-Pacific Region communications manager Ian Gregor said, “We have been confident all along of our legal position on the cease-and-desist order, and we are gratified that the court agreed.”
“Litigation is always the last resort for us, but when our efforts to resolve this dispute amicably failed, we had to resort to litigation to protect our system of airports.”
Santa Monica has vowed to appeal the trial court’s decision in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal.
“We will be seeking an appellate review of the trial court’s decision,” Santa Monica deputy city attorney Martin Tachicki confirmed after the hearing.
Mayor Herb Katz was not surprised by the court’s latest rulings.
“We’re disappointed, obviously,” the mayor said.
Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown appeared determined to pursue the appeal.
“We will make an unassailable case for safety in the appellate court,” the councilman told The Argonaut. “Simultaneously, we will continue to pursue legislative interventions from the United States Congress to ensure that our residents who live near the airport are protected.”
Congressman Henry Waxman, whose district includes Santa Monica, has been working with Santa Monica representatives and its attorneys regarding airport safety.
“I am disappointed that the FAA has moved safety issues at Santa Monica Airport into the courts,” Waxman wrote in an e-mail response to The Argonaut. “The pilots, passengers, and families using and living around the airport deserve better.
“I remain committed to pursuing all possible options to achieve meaningful safety solutions for the airport.”
Homeowners who live close to the airport were pleased to learn that Santa Monica is poised to continue the legal showdown with the federal government.
“I’m really glad to hear that,” Albert Olson replied after learning of the city’s plans to appeal Wu’s verdict.
Olson, the chair of the transportation committee for the Mar Vista Community Council, said that he was not terribly taken aback by the May 16th decision.
“I’m always the eternal optimist, but the court’s decision was really not very surprising,” he said. “The judge seemed to be deciding the case based on whether the FAA had the legal authority to file the restraining order and not the actual merits of the case.”
That sentiment was echoed by Brian Bland, a board member of Friends of Sunset Park, a community activist organization that has lobbied for runway safety devices to be installed the airport.
“Although Wu seemed to have a low opinion of the merits of [Santa Monica’s] case, he was ruling more on procedure than on merit,” Bland surmised.
Tachicki also felt that the judge and Santa Monica officials viewed the case very differently.
“The city and the trial court had a difference of opinion regarding the ordinance,” Tachicki said. “The city felt that the judge could look at the merits of the ordinance and determine if it was valid.”
Martin Rubin, the director of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution, another community organization that has pressed for detailed air quality studies of pollutants from airplanes, believes that the trial court should have taken into account the lack of runway safety measures at the airport, which was a primary reason the ordinance was proposed.
“In order to make a clear decision on the merits of this ordinance, one only needs to visit the airport’s public observation deck and witness the landings of the faster aircraft as they zoom to the west end of the runway at SMO [Santa Monica Airport], leaving no margin for mechanical or pilot error,” Rubin asserted.
“As for Judge Wu’s suggestion that pilots of C and D aircraft are more professional and therefore more capable than pilots of A and B aircraft, I ask, what could any pilot possibly do if they suddenly find themselves without functioning brakes?”
The FAA has indicated that it remains committed to seeking other solutions to address safety concerns at the airport.
“We still hope to settle this issue through an agreement with the city and not through the court process,” Gregor said. “We remain ready, willing and able to implement any of the proposals that we have previously presented to the city.”
One of those proposals is for the government to purchase the homes of residents who live near the runways and who wish to sell.
“It’s a voluntary program,” FAA associate administrator for airports Kirk Schaffer told the City Council in March at an FAA presentation. “[Homeowners] either take it or leave it, based upon their view of it and what is offered to them.”
McKeown dismissed that proposition.
“We categorically reject the FAA’s suggestion to condemn our neighbors’ homes to make more room for the airport,” the councilman told The Argonaut. “We must make the airport safe for our airport operators and for our residents.”
Tachiki believes that there is a valid case to be made in support of the airport ordinance with the appellate court.
“The city feels very strongly that our airport needs safety measures and mitigation for the safety of the airport operators and our residents,” he said. “And we feel very strongly that this position needs to be pursued at both the legislative and the judicial level.”
Katz added, “We’re going to be arguing safety, which I think is a very good argument.”
The FAA’s contention that no runway overruns with C and D aircraft have occurred at the airport did not give Olson much comfort.
“The one thing that we know is, if the ordinance had been allowed to go into effect, there would not be any accidents with C and D aircraft,” he asserted.
The case could take several months to reach the appellate court.