An administrator with the Federal Aviation Administration ruled Thursday, May 14th, that Santa Monica city leaders could not prohibit certain aircraft from taking off or departing their municipal airport.
The FAA verdict followed an appellate ruling earlier this month that upheld a lower court decision last year, prohibiting Santa Monica city officials from imposing a ban on jets that they and many members of the public feel have the potential to create safety hazards at the airport.
“In conjunction with the holding of unjust discrimination, the hearing examiner concluded that the ordinance is not reasonably justified on grounds of safety, alternative safety measures are available to the city, the ordinance unnecessarily limits the airport’s usefulness and the city overestimates its legal risks because the city could show in court that aircraft from (Categories C and D) usage does not create a dangerous condition,” Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie wrote in an e-mail to the council and City Manager Lamont Ewell after the hearing.
“Because the hearing examiner concluded that the ordinance violates the prohibition against unjust discrimination and because the preliminary injunction remains in effect (pursuant to the Ninth Circuit’s recent decision), the city cannot enforce the ordinance.”
Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman, views the results of the hearing as moving the contentious litigation toward its final stages.
“The practical effect of the hearing officer’s decision is that it is a step toward a final FAA decision,” Gregor told The Argonaut. “If the associate administrator upholds the hearing officer’s determination, then we could use the associate administrator’s decision to obtain a permanent injunction that prevents the city from enforcing the jet ban.”
Both Santa Monica and the FAA can appeal any part of the decision to the FAA’s associate administrator for policy, planning and the environment.
The City Council passed an ordinance last March that banned aircraft from Categories C and D from its municipally run general aviation airport. These faster and larger airplanes, say proponents of the ordinance, pose a danger to the residents who reside at the end of the runway, which lies approximately 300 feet from a residential neighborhood.
Unlike most airports, Santa Monica’s does not have any safety protection at the end of its runway.
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 FAA.
Proponents of the ordinance were dismayed at the FAA’s verdict, but many did not appear to be shocked.
“I know that a lot of our neighbors are disappointed, but I’m not surprised,” said Susan Hartley, vice chair of the city’s Airport Commission who lives just west of the runway.
City Councilman Richard Bloom, a resident of Sunset Park, a neighborhood close to the airport, expressed similar sentiments.
“I’m disappointed, but (the decision) was not unexpected,” the councilman said. “It’s very hard to undo a temporary stay.”
Congressman Henry Waxman, who represents Santa Monica, also expressed displeasure with the rulings.
“I am disappointed about the FAA’s reluctance to offer a reasonable and responsible solution to address safety concerns at Santa Monica Airport,” the congressman told The Argonaut. “I will continue to work with the city of Santa Monica and its residents to address the serious safety problems at Santa Monica Airport.”
The appellate court also denied Santa Monica the right to enforce the airport ban.
“Given the safety history of Category C and D aircraft at Santa Monica Airport, the FAA’s role in ensuring safety and the potential disturbance to air traffic around the Los Angeles area, the ‘preliminary relief requested (and awarded) is in the public interest,’” the court ruled. “In light of this disposition, the petition for review is moot.”
The FAA filed a cease-and-desist order enjoining the city from enforcing the ban on April 24th last year, the day that 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 federal agency in filing a temporary restraining order to prevent the implementation of the airport law in the U.S. District Court Western Division.
Judge George H. Wu granted the FAA’s order, and Santa Monica officials have since filed several briefs with the government and with the court system in an attempt to enforce the ordinance.
“The city has requested that this preliminary injunction order be stayed. That request is hereby denied,” Wu wrote last May. “The order is to take effect immediately.”
Santa Monica Deputy City Attorney Ivan Campbell believes that there was some good news for the city, despite the two unfavorable rulings.
“Of the five issues that the hearing officer looked at, there are some that we won and some that we lost,” he said.
Campbell cited three points that city officials say the FAA ruled in their favor:
(1) The ordinance does not violate the prohibition against creating an exclusive right;
(2) The FAA’s preemption claim cannot be decided in the context of this hearing and must be decided by a court; and
(3) The ordinance unreasonably and unjustly discriminates and thereby violates grant assurances, the Instrument of Transfer and the 1984 Agreement.
Gregor pointed out that the legal wrangling regarding the airport ordinance was not over.
“This decision does not end the administrative proceedings concerning the jet ban ordinance,” he cautioned. “Rather, it is another step in that process.”
Campbell said that the city was still operating within the FAA’s internal appeal process, and Santa Monica’s legal team is ready to proceed to the appellate court if it becomes necessary.
“We are poised to take judicial review in the event of an unfavorable ruling,” he said.
Bloom added that the council was not ready to give up its fight to enforce the ban.
“We have a very strong case for public safety at the airport,” the councilman said. “I’m optimistic that the (appellate) court will see this issue the same way that we do.”
The FAA associate administrator is required to rule on the appeal by July 8th, according to Gregor. That would constitute the federal agency’s final decision.