On Jan. 21 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia denied Santa Monica’s appeal of a 2009 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) decision that the City could not ban Category C and D jets from using Santa Monica Airport (SMO) for safety reasons.
Santa Monica’s City Council enacted the jet ban on March 25, 2008 because the airport has no runway safety areas to act as buffer zones from nearby homes should an aircraft overrun the runway.
However, the FAA decided the City could not ban Category C and D jets in 2009 because the ordinance “violates Santa Monica’s obligations under grant assurance 22” and is unnecessary for safety. Between 1985 and 2003 the City of Santa Monica received $10.2 million in federal grant funds under the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program which required that the airport be available according to the grant agreement “for public use on fair and reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination to all types, kinds, and classes of aeronautical uses with the exception that the petitioner (Santa Monica) may prohibit certain types of aircraft if such action is necessary for the safe operation for the airport.”
The court upheld the 2009 decision in a 19-page ruling despite the City’s claim that the “FAA acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it concluded that the ordinance violates grant assurance 22 because the FAA ignored evidence on the record, acted inconsistently with its own policies and prior decisions, and failed to state a rational connection between the evidence and its conclusion.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals found that the “FAA’s conclusion that the Ordinance is unjustly discriminatory” was logically derived from the findings supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record. Therefore, the FAA did not “act arbitrarily or capriciously when it concluded that the” ordinance violated grant assurance 22 and offered reasonable explanations why the ordinance “was not necessary for the safe operation of the airport.”
Deputy City Attorney Ivan Campbell told the Mirror his office is “still meeting to review the ruling and explore what options to take.”
In an e-mail to the Mirror, Council member Kevin McKeown stated, “We continue to value residents’ safety over the somewhat different interests of the federal bureaucracy, and our attorneys and consultants made the strongest possible case to the court. We must now move forward toward 2015 even more mindful of the FAA’s power, and the system’s tendency to favor federal agencies.”
“The FAA won. Santa Monica lost. The decision was based on contract obligations the City assumed when it accepted Airport Improvement Program grant money from the federal government. It was not based on Constitutional preemption grounds. This somewhat narrow ground for the Court’s decision could be significant in the long run, because the contract in question will expire, either in 2015 or 2023 (there’s a dispute about that too),” wrote Lionel Sobel, a professor at Southwestern Law School and a Santa Monica resident in an e-mail to the Mirror.
Sobel told this reporter that the grant contract used to make the legal decisions was entered into in 1994 and would last 20 years but there are questions because the last grant contract began in 2003 and if in effect for 20 years it would end in 2023. Therefore, the court decision now may have opened the door for another decision having to be made in four years.
“We still have the same runway configuration, the same fleet mix, and no runway safety areas,” said Bob Trimborn, SMO’s director. If a new airport was being built today with a 5,000 foot runway like the one at SMO the FAA would require it to have runway safety areas of 1,000 feet. SMO was grandfathered in because it “doesn’t meet the current design standards.”