In an effort to embark on an initial dialogue with residents of both Santa Monica and Los Angeles as well as aviation related businesses, Santa Monica City Council members have authorized hiring two firms that will assist them on discussions on the future of the city-owned airport.

An agreement with the city of Santa Monica and the Federal Aviation Administration ends in 2015, and city officials believe now is the time to begin having important conversations regarding what may occur after the contract expires.

City Manager Rod Gould said while the agreement will not expire for nearly five years, his office thought the time was right to explore having a communitywide dialogue on possible changes of land use for the area that the airport occupies.

“We want to begin this community dialogue and begin a series of thoughtful conversations with stakeholders about the various options that may be before the city come 2015,” Gould told the council. “We have to move beyond the discussion point of (maintaining) the status quo or closing the airport.”

The council voted Dec. 14 to approve a contract with RAND Corporation to assist with the airport study as well as an agreement with Point C, which designs and facilitates the community discussions.

City Councilman Robert Holbrook asked that the community outreach plan also include environmental studies at the airport.

“We should look at all aspects of the airport,” he said. “If we learn something from some responsible state agency that provides information that there are health risks, that ought to go into the mix. That ought to go right out front.”

A study published in December 2009 by UCLA professor Dr. Suzanne Paulson and several colleagues revealed a significant amount of ultrafine particles that emanate from the airport toward the eastern end of Santa Monica, Mar Vista and West Los Angeles. That analysis confirmed to many who live east of the airfield that the pollution from jet aircraft is the cause of reported cases of respiratory ailments.

Councilman Kevin McKeown, who has been the most outspoken city leader on the airport, urged his colleagues to keep all options open regarding what could be done at the airport beginning in 2015.

“We should be open to more definitive issues like closure, if that’s where we land,” the councilman said.

McKeown acknowledged that the ongoing debate about the benefits and perceived liabilities of the airport are “rife with strongly held opinions on the future of the airport” but stressed the importance of both Los Angeles and Santa Monica interests working toward solutions that most, if not all, could agree upon.

The community outreach proposal, which will begin next year, will take place against the backdrop of a simmering debate between supporters of the general aviation airport and homeowners who live nearby that complain of noise, changing flight patterns and toxic fumes from aircraft that has forced many of them to alter their lifestyles.

Community action organizations have sprouted up over the last several years in Santa Monica and Los Angeles to lobby the city and the federal government for improved runway safety as well as in-depth environmental studies on airplane pollutants.

One speaker at the meeting, Ben Marcus, said he sympathized with residents on both sides of the airfield who receive the bulk of the jet exhaust.

“I understand what it’s like to smell burning jet fuel and I understand safety concerns,” said Marcus, a Santa Monica resident who lives on Pier Avenue.

Marcus, a flight instructor who co-owns an aircraft sales firm, suggested a new use for the airport if a decision is reached to close it. He recommended installing a grass runway instead of concrete, building an aerospace theme park for children and adults, an aviation high school and an aeronautical museum for aviation pioneer Donald Douglas.

FAA representatives maintain that the city cannot close the airport. They point to its Airport Improvement Program grant obligations that require them to keep it open for at least another 13 years.

In addition, Santa Monica acquired the land through the Surplus Property Act, which requires that the property be operated as an airport in perpetuity, federal aviation officials said.

“In the FAA’s view, the city is obligated to keep Santa Monica Airport open through 2023 under assurances it gave in exchange for federal Airport Improvement Program grants,” Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the FAA, told The Argonaut. “The FAA also believes that the city is separately obligated to operate Santa Monica Airport beyond 2023 because it acquired the land on which the airport is located cost-free from the federal government in 1948 under an instrument of transfer pursuant to the Surplus Property Act.”

Arthur Ruben, the proprietor of Action Air Express, an air charter company, says keeping the airport open is a no-brainer.

“(The agreement) should be renewed, without hesitation or doubt,” Ruben asserted. “The airport provides jobs and revenue for the city, and I think it is a very positive source for the community.”

Martin Rubin, the executive director of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution, says Santa Monica officials should make certain that they heed McKeown’s advice about including their neighbors in the discussions about the airfield’s future.

“Los Angeles is subject to most of the air and noise pollution. Little weight has been given to complaints from Los Angeles residents over the years,” he said. “After meeting twice with Rod Gould, I believe his vision for initiating a public process and community dialogue is sound.”

Ruben said the council has a duty to consider the opinions of those who make their living from the airport as seriously as the residents who have advocated for more health studies and runway safety. “If they don’t, I think that would be very biased,” said the airport businessman. “They should hear all sides of who will be impacted and act accordingly.”

Anti-pollution advocates like Rubin believe that because of the arrival of jets over a decade ago at the airport, the time has come to consider all options in 2015.

“The airport and the surrounding communities have grown more and more incompatible, and if, as city manager Gould said to the council, the city is interested in the ‘most community serving future of Santa Monica Airport,’ then I feel this valuable piece of Westside real estate will cease to exist as an airport,” he said.

Gregor indicated that the federal government would not be amenable to any discussion on airport closure. “The FAA is fully committed to preserving the federal investment and keeping this airport open and operating, including specific performance of these obligations,” Gregor asserted.

McKeown said some of the most important things to keep in mind when discussing the future of the airport were enlisting other communities that have had similar problems with general aviation airports to share experiences, as well as all parties having definite ideas on what that they think should transpire in the next five years.

“If we don’t agree on what we want, we’re not going to get anything,” the councilman cautioned.

Gould said the community outreach would take approximately 12 months.