Santa Monica’s City Council gave the approval for City staff to take the necessary steps for a comprehensive public process regarding the future of the Santa Monica Airport (SMO) on Dec. 14, 2010. Controversy over SMO issues has raged for many years, over everything from health and safety to noise. Now, even having a public process about the airport has become controversial.
The Council approval included authorizing City Manager Rod Gould to execute an agreement with The RAND Corporation so they can inform SMO stakeholders and partners about the range of possible options for the airport. An agreement was also authorized with Point C to formulate and manage an extensive community process to consider all the possible options for a future City planning process. The RAND contract could cost the City up to $145,000 and the Point C contract could cost up to $81,500.
The City and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) entered into an agreement in 1984 regarding the operation of the SMO and that agreement is set to expire in 2015. Many in the City, therefore, regard the agreement expiration as a time for new airport opportunities. There are also some in the community who believe that the end of the 1984 agreement means that there is an opportunity to close the airport down. However, there are a number of ongoing legal hurdles between the City and the FAA that put the 2015 date into question. Most recently, a Federal Appeals Court in Washington D.C. invalidated the City’s attempt to ban jets from the airport.
Both the City and the FAA agree that the 1984 agreement expires in 2015 but there is a dispute about when the City’s obligations end under Gant Assurance 22. Between 1985 and 2003 the City received $10.2 million in federal grant funds under the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program. The 1994 grant agreement lasted 20 years and ends in 2015 but if the 2003 grant lasts 20 years the City’s obligations under that grant would last until 2023. Deputy City Attorney Ivan Campbell said in an interview that the City believes their obligations end in 2015, but the FAA believes it’s 2023.
Another issue is something called the 1948 Instrument of Transfer, which transferred the airport back to the City from the federal government after World War II. Some legal experts have interpreted the transfer to mean that the airport land must always remain an airport. Campbell noted that there were two parcels involved but “there is no record of transfer for” one of the parcels. Therefore, having that parcel being under the restriction of having to be always an airport is questionable.
Cathy Larson, the chair of the airport committee for the Friends of Sunset Park, pointed out that, “If you speak to a person with a particular bias either pro-aviation or pro-neighborhood, they are going to see that document (the Instrument of Transfer) from a certain perspective.” She added, “It’s a pretty gray area. I’m happy the City is getting an outsider to look at all the documents that pertain to the airport that could inform the potential outcomes of the airport’s future.”
The Mirror also spoke with Mayor Richard Bloom. He said the controversy over the Instrument of Transfer is “one of the many wrinkles that …are part of the mix. The FAA’s opinion on this is hard to detect.”
In terms of the upcoming public process Bloom noted, “There are a lot of people in the community we haven’t heard from. I expect we’ll hear different opinions. It’s good to collaborate.” In his view, those who are calling for closure of the airport are frustrated because they feel nothing can be done about the problems with the airport.
Former Airport Commissioner Susan Hartley also commented on the public process. “My concern is that all this money will be spent on a ‘public process’ that is really a charade like the LUCE process with the future of the Airport already decided by the City. The deck is stacked against the residents again with the City Manager and most of the City Council members supporting maintaining the airport.
“I’m also concerned about RAND’s neutrality on this issue given that long time RAND employee Gene Gebman, who resigned from the Airport Commission when RAND got this contract, recently supported more flight schools at the airport because the airport wasn’t operating at capacity.”