Signaling its intent to prevent Santa Monica city leaders from prohibiting the usage of specific airplanes from the city-owned Santa Monica Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has filed a temporary restraining order in federal court to enjoin the city from implementing a recently adopted airport ordinance.
On Monday, April 28th, U.S. District Judge George H. Wu granted the FAA the order, which will prevent airport officials from banning Category C and D airplanes, which are typically among the faster planes that use the airport.
Wu’s ruling restrains the city from imposing the ordinance until May 15th, when a decision to issue a preliminary restraining order will be considered.
City officials could apply for a review of the interim restraining order by filing a petition for review with the United States Court of Appeal, the judge stated.
“The city argues that because it has not filed a petition, the exclusive jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit [Court] has not taken effect,” Wu wrote in his verdict. “While that may be true, this court has jurisdiction to consider the procedural or substantive merits of the interim order. The statutory scheme plainly rests with the Department of Transportation, the FAA, or the city if it files a petition with the Court of Appeal.
“Thus, until the city files a petition with the Washington, D.C. or Ninth Circuit, jurisdiction over the matter remains at the governmental agency level.”
Wu then directed the city to comply with the temporary restraining order and “cease and desist from the enforcement of the ordinance during the pendency of the FAA’s administrative proceeding or any proceedings before the United States Court of Appeals for D.C. Circuit or the Ninth Circuit (except as expressly permitted by such court as permitted with in connection with this case)” and to permit aircraft Category C and D aircraft to continue to fly in and out of the airport.
The judge did grant Santa Monica the right to appeal the ruling.
“We’re glad that the judge ruled in our favor,” said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor in a statement. “It remains our hope to resolve this issue through an agreement with the city and not through the court system.”
Homeowners who live near the airport did not appear to be taken aback by the results of the hearing.
“I’m not really surprised,” said Cathy Larson, who is the chair of the Airport Committee of the Friends of Sunset Park.
Representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Department of Transportation filed the action on Friday, April 25th, in the U.S. District Court’s Western Division which sought to restrain the Santa Monica City Council from banning the operation of Category C and D airplanes.
“Plaintiffs are entitled to a temporary restraining order enjoining the city’s enforcement of its ordinance because they are not merely likely to succeed on the merits of their claim against the city, they are certain to do so,” the plaintiffs wrote in court documents. “The city is squarely in violation of 49 U.S.C. 46105(a), which requires compliance with an order issued by the FAA until such order is amended, modified or set aside either in the ongoing administrative process or by the Court of Appeals.”
The legal action comes after an exchange of strongly worded correspondence between the federal agency and Santa Monica officials after the City Council passed the ordinance banning Category C and D aircraft from the Santa Monica Airport in March.
The council adopted the ordinance to protect the surrounding neighborhoods from the possibility of runway overruns, which many residents fear due to the fact that there are residential neighborhoods within 300 feet of the runway.
There are no safety devices at the end of the airport’s runways. Sana Monica Airport is said to be one of the only airports in the nation without such protection.
“We’re very disappointed in the court’s decision,” Santa Monica Mayor Herb Katz told The Argonaut the day after the court ruling. “But it’s not totally surprising.”
Katz noted that Wu did leave open the possibility that the city could appeal the decision.
“Whether we’ll be successful or not remains to be seen,” said the mayor.
The FAA previously filed a cease and desist order against the city on April 24th, the day the new law was scheduled to take effect.
“We received the FAA’s cease and desist order,” Santa Monica city manager assistant Kate Vernez confirmed that same day. “The City Council has decided to go forward with the ordinance in order to protect public safety for its residents and operators of the airport.”
Kelvin L. Soloco, acting director of the FAA Office of Airport Safety and Standards, wrote in the cease and desist order, “Your enforcement of the ordinance on April 24th can only be interpreted as an attempt to divest the FAA of its jurisdiction over the administrative process to which the city, as a federally obligated airport, must adhere.
“Moreover, your attempt to enforce the city’s ordinance also suggests a complete disregard for the FAA’s authority and responsibility as the final arbiter of aviation safety in the National Air Transportation System.”
City officials delayed implementing the ordinance in order to prepare for the hearing in federal court and respond to the federal government’s accusations.
“The U.S. Attorney moved very quickly to go to court to stop the ordinance,” said Richard Bloom, Santa Monica mayor pro tem. “Everyone agreed to wait until the hearing took place that it would be best to wait and see what transpired at the hearing.”
The ordinance, which was approved by City Council unanimously on March 25th, sought to disallow airplanes from the airport that travel with an approach speed of 121 knots or greater, but less than 141 knots, which fall into Category C. Category D airplanes have speeds of 141 knots or greater, but less than 166 knots, according to the FAA.
Contacted at City Hall the day after the ruling, Vernez indicated that no decision had been made as to whether to appeal or wait until the May 15th hearing.
“We are still studying the court order and examining all of our available options,” she said.
Santa Monica officials have stated that they will continue to pursue all possible legal channels available to them to see that the ordinance eventually becomes law, despite the legal action by the federal government.
“The City Council remains committed to protect the safety of its airport operators and its residential communities near the airport,” Vernez pledged.
Residents who live near the airport in and around Santa Monica were grateful that the council did not retreat in the face of the FAA’s lawsuit.
“We are very pleased that they did not back down,” said Albert Olson, a Mar Vista homeowner who lives close to the airport. “The fact that there are residents living 300 feet from the runway dictates that the ordinance is necessary in the face of completely feeble proposals regarding safety measures from the FAA.”
“The tone of the city’s response shows that ensuring its residents safety is a top priority for them,” added Airport Committee for the Friends of Sunset Park chair Larson. She feels that the federal government does not have the same concerns in mind, citing several news articles regarding incidents where FAA employees have alleged safety equipment violations.
“There are multiple examples of FAA employees favoring profits over safety,” Larson said. “It seems to be a part of their culture.”
“While I am disappointed with the court ruling, I want the FAA to reconsider its position and work to reach a reasonable solution to this real problem,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, who represents Santa Monica, in a statement after the ruling.
Despite the court ruling, Katz seemed confident that Santa Monica would legally be able to implement the ordinance.
“I think that we will ultimately prevail in the long run,” the mayor predicted.