The City Council gave final approval to an ordinance banning the larger, faster “Category C and D” jet aircraft from Santa Monica Airport (SMO), thereby setting the stage for what councilmembers expect to be protracted litigation between the City and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over enforcement of that ordinance.
And a further fight with the FAA may be looming down the road, as the FAA administrator out from Washington, D.C. said that the agency would do all in its power to force the City to continue operating SMO beyond the 2015 expiration of the current agreement between the FAA and the City.
The Council passed the ordinance unanimously on November 27, 2007 [Santa Monica Mirror, November 29-December 5, 2007] but had delayed final, “second reading” consideration (usually conducted about 30 days after the first vote) to make one more attempt at reaching agreement with the FAA on runway safety issues. City officials met with Congressional representatives and the FAA in Washington, D.C. January 29, and the FAA – urged at that meeting to make a more reasonable proposal to the City – outlined a “new” proposal in a March 7 letter to City Manager Lamont Ewell.
At issue are “runway safety areas” (RSAs) at either end of the runway to prevent aircraft that might overrun the end of the runway proper from leaving airport property before they can be stopped. SMO presently has no RSAs. The City wants longer RSAs to protect the safety of nearby residential neighborhoods. But longer RSAs mean a shorter runway, which may restrict the weight or speed of aircraft using SMO, and the FAA wants shorter RSAs so as to maximize the “utility” of the airport.
Discussions between the City, which owns and operates SMO, and the FAA, which regulates access to the airport, regarding runway safety and other issues have been ongoing since 2002.
At the City Council meeting on Tuesday, March 25, FAA Associate Administrator for Airports Kirk Shaffer made a presentation in support of the proposal set forth in the March 3 FAA letter to Ewell. He proposed, in effect, a 275-foot RSA at the west (Sunset Park) end of the runway and none at the east (Mar Vista) end, reasoning that since over 90 percent of SMO operations are westbound, the balancing of safety and utility did not require an RSA at the east end.
The City was not only unhappy with the lack of any RSA at the east end, but airport staff argued the FAA plan represented little change from its earlier proposals, and in any event staff disputed that the 275-foot area at the west was adequate to arrest a plane leaving the runway proper at 70 knots, arguing that an area of at least 435 feet was required.
As the councilmembers questioned Shaffer, it became clear that, although the FAA conceded that “safety is more important than convenience,” the FAA placed a higher importance on “utility and operations” at SMO than the City did, and the City placed a higher importance on safety than the FAA did. Councilmembers seemed to take particular offense at the FAA suggestion that the City create “runway protection zones” by buying properties in the residential neighborhoods at either end of the runway.
In response to a question from Councilmember Bobby Shriver, Shaffer clearly answered that the FAA would attempt to compel Santa Monica to continue airport operations at SMO beyond the 2015 expiration of the current “1984 Agreement” between the FAA and the City. Many in Santa Monica believe that the City would have the option of closing the airport in 2015.
Public comments on the FAA proposal began with Los Angeles City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, whose Council District 11 surrounds Santa Monica on three sides. He urged the Council to adopt its proposed ordinance and reject the FAA proposal. And all of the dozens of public comments that followed took the same position, including residents of Santa Monica, Mar Vista, and Venice. Monika Bialas drew a laugh when she said, “We used to say, ‘The Russians are coming!’ but now we’re saying, ‘The FAA are coming!’”
In the end, the City Council unanimously gave final approval to the ordinance. Councilmember Ken Genser observed that the extent to which the City is able to succeed in addressing safety and emissions issues at SMO may well have a bearing on whether the City opts to close the airport in 2015 or avoids that fight with the FAA by choosing to keep SMO open.
Shriver urged the public to write letters and put pressure on Congressional representatives Henry Waxman and Jane Harman to push the FAA away from litigating against the City.
The other principal item of discussion at Tuesday’s meeting was the Council’s endorsement of the plan for a new Property-Based Assessment District (PBAD) in the downtown area and its passage of an ordinance adopting local modifications so that such a district could have a 20-year life and could be presented to the City Council if a petition is signed by 40 percent of those to be assessed. (If the Council were to approve such a district upon presentation of the petition, a full majority of those to be assessed would still have to approve the plan.)
In other action, the Council adopted a resolution supporting the “Save Our State Parks” Campaign and urging rejection of proposed State Parks budget cuts, and the Council directed staff to review Assemblymember Michael Feuer’s 2008 Transportation Legislative Package with an eye toward providing a letter of support.