A Justice Aviation flight school worker demonstrates the controls of a Cessna 172 at Santa Monica Airport. Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

A Justice Aviation flight school worker demonstrates the controls of a Cessna 172 at Santa Monica Airport. Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

The debate over possible closure of the city’s airport heats up with lawsuits and competing ballot measures

By Gary Walker and Joe Piasecki

First came the lawsuits. Now, the ballot measures.

A years-long battle over whether to close Santa Monica Airport over noise, pollution and safety concerns is suddenly heating up, despite a precipitous decline in airport traffic over the past 14 years.

In 2000, more than 172,000 flights either took off from or landed at SMO, according to air traffic counts released by the airport. By 2006, that number had dropped to about 137,000. By 2012 it was down to 102,000.

And for the first time in recent history, total SMO air traffic has slipped below the 100,000 mark, with only 95,152 departing or arriving in 2013 — a 45% decrease in 14 years.

The decline mirrors similar declines in propeller plane usage at other small airports, including those in Van Nuys, Camarillo and Torrance. The driving factor: “It’s expensive to fly,” said Santa Monica Airport Manager Stelios Makrides.

As airport traffic has declined, violations of the city’s 95-decibel flyover noise limit have also dropped substantially, from 527 in 2000 to 134 in 2013. But official airport noise complaints lodged with the city by residents (some living as close to the runway as several hundred feet) have skyrocketed over the past decade, increasing 15-fold from 287 in 2004 to 4,492 last year.

Jet traffic, a lightning rod for concern, increased from 12,414 take-offs and landings in 2012 to 14,284 in 2013, but that’s still well below a peak of 18,575 in 2007.

Makrides, a city employee, traces the spike in noise complaints to a 2010 Federal Aviation Administration study that temporarily changed flight paths from the airport directly above thousands more homes. That study alone — conducted over the objections of city officials — generated about 43,000 complaints, he said.

“People who had never complained before filed complaints during that test. It made a lot more people aware of the airport,” he said. “The annoyance factor for the human ear is not rated on a decibel level. It doesn’t matter how loud; annoyance is what triggers a complaint. Prior to the test, some people might have heard airplanes but it didn’t annoy them; now it does.”

The FAA-mandated test was just one of many battles in an ongoing airport tug-of-war between city and federal officials. Even today, it appears the catalyst for debate isn’t so much a change in what’s happening at SMO as it is the escalation of an epic battle between Santa Monica City Council members and federal aviation officials for control over the airport.

The crux of the current argument boils down to interpretation of the small print on a decades-old contract between the city, which owns the airport land, and the FAA which makes the rules for air traffic operations at all airports.

Council members say the city’s obligation to keep the airport open expires a year from now, and voted 6-0 in March to pursue reducing the length of SMO’s runway and restricting airport traffic at that time.

The FAA says a 1948 agreement that transferred airport land to the city forces local officials to keep the airport in operation and that the city became obliged to keep that status quo through 2023 when it accepted federal airport maintenance grants in the 1990s.

The city lost a 2007 battle in federal court to restrict jet traffic at the airport after the FAA prevented the city from shortening the runway in order to install safety buffer zones. In February, a judge tossed a city lawsuit filed last year that challenged the 1948 agreement in order to wrest control away from the feds.

Ballot Measure Battle

Conflict over what to do with the airport if the city does ever take control has taken a sharp political turn this summer.

Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions, a political action committee with ties to the aviation industry, last month submitted signatures to qualify a November city ballot measure that would keep airport land at a “low-density aviation use” in perpetuity unless redevelopment is approved by a majority of voters. The group needs 9,100 valid signatures for its “Voters Decide Charter Amendment” to qualify for the ballot. It has submitted 15,700 pending review by the Los Angeles County Registrar.

Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions spokesman John Jerabek, a 16-year Santa Monica resident said the city council’s push toward airport closure and history of failed lawsuits justify putting the voters directly in charge.

“The City Council has political and economic interests, and their decisions regarding the airport have been very poor,” Jerabek said.

City Council members have responded by seeking to place their own competing referendum on the November ballot.

On July 8, the council voted to pursue a ballot measure that would hold off future development decisions impacting airport land until a city-led land use plan is adopted. Some council members have also proposed giving voters the right to veto that city plan. The council is expected to vote on the exact wording of its measure on Tuesday.

“The actual direct effect of the [Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions] measure would be to immediately deprive the council of its authority to manage the airport or close it so as to mitigate adverse impacts, and to prevent the council from exercising its authority when it becomes legally possible to effectuate a closure,” Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Jones Moutrie told the council.

While some city leaders have expressed concern that voters may respond favorably to the allure of referendum control over any future development on airport land, others say the city measure offers a choice without challenging city power over the airport’s present use.

Councilman Bob Holbrook said during the meeting that he expects support for the pending city ballot measure by the city’s two most influential political groups — Santa Monicans for Renters Rights and the Santa Monica Democratic Club — will carry the day.

“I’ve been around Santa Monica politics a long time. It’s really simple. Trust me, it will pass simply with those endorsements,” he said.

Councilwoman Gleam Davis said during the meeting that including wording akin to having no new development at the airport without a public vote on a city-formed redevelopment plan would make the ballot initiative more palatable to voters.

“To me, that’s one way [to] meet some of the concerns people expressed here tonight about having something that they can say that there will be no intensification of uses without the vote of the people,” Davis said. “I think that’s an easy pitch.”

State Sen. Ted Lieu (D- Torrance) who has convened hearings airport-related pollution, is also backing the city’s approach.

“The aviation measure is simply an attempt to maintain the status quo, and to me that is unacceptable,” said Lieu, the Democratic nominee to replace Rep. Henry Waxman in Congress. “I support having the voters having a say in how the land at the airport is developed, should the agreement with the FAA expire next year.”

Lieu’s opponent, prosecutor Elan Carr, did not return calls.

Send in the Lawyers

In an attempt to quash the city’s March lawsuit seeking to cut back 2,000 feet of runway space — essentially hampering the ability of many jets to utilize the airport — aviation interests filed a federal complaint on July 2 that triggers an administrative hearing before the FAA to determine the suit’s legitimacy.

The complaint was filed by the national Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn., a handful of aviation-related businesses and several aircraft owners, including actor Harrison Ford, who keeps private planes at the airport.

“Santa Monica Airport is a vital and historic component in the California and national aviation systems and must remain open,” association President Mark Baker said. “The airport generates $275 million in local revenue and supports 1,500 jobs [according to a 2011 analysis by city consultants], and we know that the vast majority of Santa Monica residents regard it as an asset to their city. The political games played by the city have gone on too long, and we’re hopeful that this filing will be one more successful effort in preventing the city from closing the airport in favor of redevelopment.”

Proponents for restricting airport use also have a lawsuit going—this one challenging the validity of the pro-aviation ballot measure.

The Sunset Park Anti-Pollution Group, an advocacy organization formed by Santa Monica residents of that airport-adjacent neighborhood, filed a complaint in May that the measure backed by Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions attempts to confuse voters.

The suit argues that the measure puts the cart before the horse by raising the specter of intensified development on airport land in order to take away the city’s power to regulate its existing use as an airport.

Empowering citizen control over development “is a nice political statement that they make, but that’s not what [their ballot measure] does,” said attorney Jonathan Stein, who represents the Sunset Park Anti-Pollution Group.

Stein said that the dueling November ballot measures, if they go forward, amount to a “local versus national organization fight, and fight between people living in the past and people living in the future.”

Jerabek said it’s only right that the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. would step up to protect the livelihoods of pilots, flight school teachers and other aviation-related workers.

“If the City Council were considering a vote on closing down all exit ramps on the 10 freeway, no one would be surprised if the Auto Club of Southern California got involved,” he said.

Exploring the What Ifs

If Santa Monica Airport was to close, it wouldn’t be the first airport relegated to the history books.

In 1995, Denver’s Stapleton International Airport was decommissioned and replaced by Denver International airport. Crissy Field in San Francisco closed in 1974 and became part of Golden Gate Park. Meigs Field Airport closed in 2003 and has since become a park and concert venue.

One popular redevelopment proposal for airport land is to turn it into a large urban park.

Frank Gruber, spokesman for the local advocacy group Airport2Park, is already backing the city-proposed ballot measure.

“The issues surrounding the airport are very complicated, and we feel that it’s not appropriate to put them [directly] before the voters,” Gruber said.

Jerabek countered that taking council members out of the picture and handing the power to voters is more democratic.

“It’s actually a very reasonable thing to do. [The city’s proposed ballot measure] takes the decision of whether the airport should close or not out of the voters’ hands,” he said. “The council has demonstrated over and over again that they are only concerned about closing down the airport without realizing who it may or may not benefit.”

The one thing both men agree on: the decision is a crucial one.

“I think that you can arguably say that [even] 50 years from now, if we are able to build a park there, it will be have been because of the decisions that we make today,” Gruber said.

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