Santa Monica Airport closure agreement leaves plenty to fight about

By Beige Luciano-Adams

Following years of public sparring and weeks of closed-door negotiations, Santa Monica announced over the weekend that it has reached a deal with the Federal Aviation Administration to close Santa Monica Airport on Dec. 31, 2028.

News of the consent decree left stakeholders on both sides of the debate smarting. Aviation advocates decried the future closure while resident groups seeking to end flight operations vowed to fight the agreement in court. The city declared, “SMO will close forever in 2028”; dissenters countered “SMO will stay open” for 11 more years.

In the tug of war for total dominion — the city’s right to close SMO at will and turn much of the land into public park space versus the FAA’s right to operate flight traffic in perpetuity — Santa Monica officials maintain the compromise offered a gracious and controlled exit from a tangle of complex, protracted litigation with an uncertain outcome.

But even as the ink dries, some observers doubt we’ve seen the end of the fight over SMO.

Why 2028?

“It was much less time than they wanted, and much more than we wanted,” Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole said of the 11  years the airport will remain open, a timeline that exceeds the FAA’s recent claim that SMO was obligated by the terms of a federal grant to operate until at least 2023. “And we would’ve never agreed to it if not for the immediate relief.”

That relief includes allowing the city to shorten the runway — at its own cost — from 5,000 to 3,500 feet, which officials expect will significantly reduce the scope of operations and flight traffic.

Even in the best of cases, Cole said, pending litigation would have prevented the city from shortening the runway for several more years. Now they expect to have it done in three to six months, depending on the design process.

While a 3,500-foot runway eliminates whole classes of jets, Cole is confident that other red tape (weight limitations, insurance factors) will further dampen the airport’s lure and “cause some of the current users to reexamine using our airport.”

The agreement also concedes the city’s right to provide fixed-based operations (FBOs) at the airport – and renders pending litigation over the eviction of two FBO vendors moot. In an apparent technicality, it requires the city to offer all current tenants leases “of no less than three years but allows Santa Monica to terminate any and all leases with only six months’ notice — a move the current administration fully intends to make.

“We’ll sit down to negotiate what we hope will be an orderly transition,” Cole said. “All of those [decisions] will begin to impact who uses SMO, and I think will dramatically reverse the increase of jet traffic.”

Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin, who represents Venice and West L.A. neighborhoods impacted by SMO traffic, was not convinced. In an emailed statement, he cited “the devil in the details” and “grave concerns” that the agreement fails to protect constituents’ health and safety, including failure to dedicate 1,000-foot runway buffer zones for residents.

“As far as I can tell from the details I have seen, there is no agreement to actually close the airport in 2029 — just an agreement to keep the airport open until then,” Bonin wrote.

A reading of the consent decree, however, appears to indicate otherwise — clearly stating that both parties agree the city can, “in its sole discretion at any time on or after Jan. 1, 2029, cease to operate the airport as an airport and may close the airport to all aeronautical use forever.” At least as long as the city doesn’t take any more grant money from the FAA.

The city’s current leadership has made its intentions to close the airport clear. Whether a future administration could reverse course, however, seems a valid question.

Continued Dissent

Immediately following the City Council’s vote (4 to 3 in favor) on the agreement, Councilman Kevin McKeown added his dissenting opinion to the minutes:

“With this settlement, we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This, at a time when the FAA’s willingness to negotiate revealed that the FAA itself suspected they would lose their court battles with Santa Monica — even while they continue to hold our land hostage,” he wrote.

Jonathan Stein, an attorney representing several resident-owner groups, accused the city of acting unlawfully and announced his intention to
file actions in state and federal courts.

“It’s a terrible deal that will impact residents. We want to make sure all aviation tenants are thrown out, leaving only the runway. We then want to show in court that the runway can be shut down lawfully by the city by Dec, 31, 2018, as the city council already decided,” Stein said.

Stein and other opponents argue that the city would have prevailed in its legal claims against the federal government, and thus question the merit of compromising. He also claims the city did not comply with public disclosure requirements.

“They were so concerned with hiding the content of the agreement from residents of Sunset Park and Ocean Park that they failed to do even the minimum disclosures you need under the Brown Act when you’re changing public properties,” Stein said.

“John [Stein] is just wrong on that,” countered Cole, saying the city fully complied with the Brown Act.

He argued bringing the FAA to the table was the best way out of a complex litigation schedule that included court battles in the 9th Circuit, 9th District and Court of Appeals; five pending cases, a notice of investigation and an interim cease-and-desist from the FAA; the eviction of two tenants; and a cease-and-desist order the city was preparing to file against a tenant last week.

About That Park

Airport proponents are fueling speculation that SMO’s closure is playing into the hands of rapacious developers, but Cole is adamant that a 2014 charter amendment prevents any commercial or residential redevelopment of airport land — anything other than “recreational, cultural and educational use” — without a citywide public vote.

Some of the airport buildings will be “adaptively reused” for such purposes, and the city fully intends to capitalize on having tenants like Snapchat to pay for the construction and maintenance of the public park space that many airport closure advocates would like to see.

“There’ll be no expansion of those uses, but the benefits of maintaining its revenue will help build the kind of quality of park we’re looking to build,” Cole said.

While McKeown criticized what he sees as a 12-year delay for Airport Park, Cole pointed to another highlight of the agreement: Santa Monica will be able to begin snagging bits of land to jumpstart the park expansion well before 2028.

Then again, 12 years is a long time.

“City councils come and go, so I don’t think this ends the process — it probably just starts it again,” said Bob Hajek, a veteran aviation attorney who was surprised by the agreement.

“I think putting a deadline of 2029 means political pressure now goes into the city arena rather than the federal government arena,” he said. “I don’t think this ends the fight. I think it just focuses it to parties that need to be involved.”