The battle between the Santa Monica city government and the Federal Aviation Administration over the city’s right to limit certain aircraft at its municipal airport continues to escalate, with both parties filing legal actions in recent days.
The FAA filed a “director’s determination,” an administrative action, on May 27th, which accuses Santa Monica officials of breaching the city’s legal responsibilities regarding its airport operation with the federal government.
“We conclude that Santa Monica is currently in violation of its federal obligation,” wrote Byron Hoffman, the FAA’s acting director of airport safety and standards.
The filing of the administrative action comes on the heels of the city’s decision to implement a ban on Category C and D aircraft from the airport by the City Council in March. Santa Monica’s elected leaders, after hearing from their constituents for years about their fears of runways overruns, crafted an ordinance that would prevent larger, faster airplanes from using the airport.
Subsequent to the passage of the ordinance, the FAA applied for and received a temporary restraining order from a trial court last month that prevents the city from enforcing the airport ban.
“We have been confident all along of our legal position on the cease-and-desist order, and we are gratified that the court agreed,” said Ian Gregor, the FAA’s communications manager for the Western-Pacific region.
By filing the director’s determination, the government agency has directed airport and city authorities to present a plan to the FAA’s Office of Safety and Standards Compliance Division within 20 calendar days from the date of the administrative action to determine how it intends to address the agency’s concerns about correcting the alleged violations.
Five days earlier, on May 22nd, the city attorney’s office submitted an application with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to issue a stay against the FAA’s restraining order.
“This petition places the matter in the appeals court,” Santa Monica Deputy City Attorney Martin Tachiki told the Argonaut. “In addition, the city has filed a notice of appeal for a preliminary injunction against the FAA director’s determination.”
The legal wrangling over whether city officials can prohibit specific aircraft from landing and taking off from the airport stems from considerable public pressure from residents in Santa Monica and nearby communities like Mar Vista about the lack of safety measures at the airport’s runways.
Santa Monica Airport is one of the few municipal airfields in the nation where no runway protection exists, and homeowners who live near the runways fear that airplanes could one day overrun the airstrip and crash into their homes.
Some residences lie within 300 feet of the runways.
FAA representatives offered to install safety devices at one end of the runway in March, but the City Council rejected them on the grounds that the measures were insufficient to protect the surrounding neighborhoods.
In its administrative filing, the FAA indicates that it does not feel that the historical record regarding runway safety in Santa Monica is as dire as some residents and local lawmakers believe it to be.
“The safety and overrun accident history at (Santa Monica Airport) does not substantiate the need for any ban of Category C and D aircraft,” Hoffman wrote. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, in the years between 1981 and 2008, there have been eight accidents at the municipal airport, two of which have resulted in fatalities. Seven of the accidents were runway overruns.
Santa Monica’s elected leaders and runway safety advocates say that it may only be a matter of time before another accident occurs, and with the runways in such close proximity to residential neighborhoods, it is a chance that they do not want to risk.
“This is about safety,” said Mayor Herb Katz.
“The city feels very strongly that our airport needs safety measures and mitigation for the safety of the airport operators and our residents,” Tachiki added. “And we feel very strongly that this position needs to be pursued at both the legislative and the judicial level.”
FAA representatives contend that airport and city officials do not have the authority to enforce the ordinance. The administrative document also references a subsidy for airport improvement projects that city leaders accepted in 1994. The grant requires the city to operate the property for 20 years, until 2014.
Government officials also claim that, pending FAA approval of a corrective action plan to ameliorate these concerns, the city government and the airport cannot apply for federal grant funding.
Santa Monica Airport Director Robert Trimborn said that the airport does not receive any federal subsidies.
“We don’t take grants, so it doesn’t affect our airport,” Trimborn told The Argonaut. “My operation is self-sufficient and transparent.”
The airport director was not surprised at the administrative action by the government.
“This is their way of setting their position. It’s a very succinct document,” said Trimborn, referring to the director’s determination. “We can clearly see how they view the entire process.”
Susan Hartley, the vice-chair of the Santa Monica Airport Commission, also said that she was not surprised by the FAA’s administrative action.
“I think that what they’re doing is stalling, and they want to hit the city at every level,” she said. “I’m pleased that the city is responding to them.”
Neither was Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes communities such as Mar Vista and West Los Angeles that are affected by noise and air pollution from the airport and are vulnerable to airplane overruns.
“I’m very disappointed that the FAA has taken this position,” the councilman said.
Rosendahl feels that in order to get the protection that he and others feel the city’s airport personnel and residents deserve, changes must be made by federal lawmakers.
“The FAA is only a tool of federal policymakers,” he said. “The real solution is for our nationally elected leaders to take a look at this issue and find a way to bring a common sense approach to ensuring the safety of everyone who resides, not just in the communities near the airport, but also within the immediate region.”
Businesses around the airport could have been affected indirectly by the ban. Jesse Peck, the proprietor of Seaside Aviation, does not work with airplanes from Categories C or D. “I wouldn’t have been affected by the ban,” he said.
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 approach speeds of 141 knots or greater, but less than 166 knots, according to the FAA.
Nevertheless, Peck, who has been flying out of the airport for nearly 20 years, does not agree with the ordinance.
“It’s an attempt to limit the airport in another way,” he said.
Peck has heard complaints from nearby homeowners of airplane noise and air pollution, and while he sympathizes with them, he likens living near the airport to buying a house close to a freeway and then complaining about the volume of traffic.
“Things change after 20 years,” Peck said.
Trimborn, along with the City Council, insists that safety is his top priority, not only for residents but for those who work at the airport as well.
“Category C and D airplanes are incompatible with the airport,” he said. “Even the FAA recognizes that runways overruns can occur with deadly consequences.”
A recent accident with a plane in Honduras that overshot its runway serves to reinforce the need for improved safety measures, say Trimborn and Hartley.
“No doubt about it,” the airport director asserted. “When it comes down to it, we’re talking about safety and property, and we take our responsibility very seriously.”
“It not only reconfirms my fears and the accuracy of what the city is doing, it also increases the level of my frustration,” Hartley added. “You wonder what’s it going to take to convince (the FAA) that we need to protect our residents from these dangerous overruns.”