Advocates for closing Santa Monica Airport throw a party on July 1, the date they believe marks the end of federal control over SMO

By Gary Walker
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Activists pushing to convert Santa Monica Airport into a public park are planning a party at Airport Park on Wednesday, July 1, to celebrate a date that many argue marks the end of Federal Aviation Administration control over SMO.

Lawyers for the city of Santa Monica contend that a 1984 agreement with the FAA expires July 1, effectively giving control over airport land back to city officials — many of them in favor of restricting flight operations, some of them expressing a willingness to close SMO down altogether.

The FAA argues otherwise, contending in court papers filed last year that the operating agreement was extended to at least August 2023 — another eight years — after Santa Monica entered various agreements for federal grant money related to SMO.

According to a March staff report to the Santa Monica City Council, “The 1984 settlement agreement, which is also a contract between the city and the federal government, states that it resolved all legal disputes that existed between the city and the federal government in 1984. Among other things, the settlement agreement requires the city to operate the airport until July 1 of this year, releases from exclusive aviation use certain land on the south side of the airport, recognizes some local restrictions on flight operations (noise limits and prohibitions on two classes of patterned operations) and imposes certain leasing obligations on the city (e.g. maintaining a specified number of tie downs).”

While nobody expects SMO to shut down on July 1, the aforementioned land on the south side of the airport — roughly 12 acres near Airport Park currently used for tie-down aircraft storage — is now in play, members of the nonprofit Airport2Park Foundation say.

“This is the beginning of a new phase for this land. This is a direct consequence of Measure LC,” said Airport2Park Foundation board member John Fairweather, who would like to see the tie-down area become park space.

Measure LC was the successful November city ballot measure that allows Santa Monica City Councilmembers to decide whether to close SMO but would require officials to seek voter approval for any airport land-use plan other than converting it into park space.

The city-sponsored measure was a response to Measure D, a competing ballot initiative backed by pilots, plane owners and aviation industry groups that would have forced city officials to keep the airport open unless voters approved a future ballot initiative to close it.

Measure LC won with 59% voter support despite supporters being outspent by Measure D backers.

Against the backdrop of Wednesday’s planned celebration, Santa Monica city officials have warned that the FAA may take its own legal action if there are any attempts to close all or any part of the airport.

“Likely, it would issue an administrative order prohibiting the action and seek a federal injunction enforcing that order,” the March staff report states.

Santa Monica Chief Deputy City Attorney Lance Gams did not return calls for comment about the airport agreement.

Christian Fry, vice president of the Santa Monica Airport Association, said the group could support what he called “appropriate repurposing of residual [airport] land” but strongly opposes any attempt to close the airport.

“The final determination about the airport will be decided by the federal courts. The documents are very clear, and the FAA has been extremely clear on their position. [Santa Monica Airport] is a major asset of the regional transportation system that is a benefit to the entire community,” Fry said.

Not all of those pushing for closure of the airport plan to participate in Wednesday’s party.

Martin Rubin, executive director of the advocacy group Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution, doesn’t want discussion of converting a few acres of tie-down space into parkland to overshadow the larger cause of ending all SMO flight operations.

“Converting the 12 acres to parkland won’t help to reduce airport pollution, since all operations at SMO will remain exactly as they are now,” Rubin said.

Rubin wants city officials to argue for closure of the airport based on environmental concerns.

“For three decades, the city of Santa Monica, as owner and operator of the airport, has failed to address air pollution using the proprietary powers that are grandfathered within the 1984 Santa Monica Airport Agreement,” Rubin said.

Fairweather and his allies say that while they will be monitoring the potential legal battles on the horizon, their primary focus will be on celebrating the building of a park.

“We need to begin preparations for a time when the entire airport will be a great recreational facility,” Fairweather said.  “Building a great park is an inspiring goal, and it’s something that anyone can get behind.”

Airport2Park is hosting its celebration from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Airport Park, 3201 Airport Blvd., Santa Monica. The public is invited to attend but is asked to RSVP to airport2park@gmail.com.

gary@argonautnews.com

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