The saga that is the Santa Monica Airport (SMO) will have to end someday. However, that someday is not anytime soon, as yet a group of aviation interests and actor Harrison Ford filed a federal complaint July 2 to challenge the City of Santa Monica’s plans to shut down the airport by July 1, 2015 – now less than one year away.
The Santa Monica City Council has consistently been on the record as interpreting its federally mandated obligations to maintain SMO through June 30, 2015. Based upon such an interpretation, the council had gradually arrived to a decision to initiate plans for a closure of SMO.
However, the complaint filed this week with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) claims the City’s federal obligations actually do not end July 1, 2015 but instead more than eight years later.
“The City has repeatedly asserted … its Grant Assurance obligations end in June 2014 [and] these obligations are extended, by separate contracts with the FAA, only until July 1, 2015,” Richard K. Simon, the attorney representing the at least 10 parties attached to the complaint as plaintiffs, stated, adding Santa Monica believes it has the power to either operate or close SMO entirely at its discretion as of next summer.
Simon added the FAA made it clear Santa Monica’s obligations to operate SMO is extended at least through August 2023.
Specifically, the complaint states Santa Monica received $240,600 in August 2003 as part of a larger $1.6 million grant given to the City in 1994 to pay for repairs and upgrades at SMO. The 2003 grant would expire in 2023, according to the complaint.
City officials have long contended the money received in 2003 was part of an accounting transaction as part of the 1994 grant and not a new grant. Therefore, the 20-year clock started when the initial grant was made in 1994, not when the accounting transaction was made in 2003.
The complaint seeks urgency, as the parties initiating the proceedings stated both them and the other SMO tenants cannot wait until July 2015 for a resolution. According to the complaint, if City Hall carries through with its plans to “disregard” its federally mandated obligations and “effectively gut airport operation,” the complaint states, the plaintiffs would suffer irreparable harm.
“The Complainants’ businesses and operations already have been, currently are, and will continue to be adversely affected by the City’s repeated public announcements of its intention to close or restrict the Airport and its operations after July 1, 2015, which effectively discourages investment in and commitment to the Airport by current and prospective tenants and users,” Simon stated in the complaint addressed to the FAA’s office of chief counsel.
According to the complaint, the parties bringing the action include Ford, Aero Film, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assoc. (AOPA), James Ross, Justice Aviation, Kim Davidson Aviation, Krueger Aviation, National Business Aircraft Assoc., Paramount Citrus, and Youri Bujko.
According to the complaint, Ford has been an Airport tenant for 10 years, basing both of his fixed‐wing (piston and jet) and rotor aircraft in his north‐side hangar.
Ford has testified before Congress as an advocate for general aviation and regularly flies missions in support of humanitarian causes, according to the complaint.
The complaint is the latest chapter in a bitter back-and-forth between various segments of the Santa Monica community concerning the future of SMO.
In June alone, both City Hall and pro-airport residents were moving forward with plans to place competing initiatives on the November ballot.
On June 10, a group of Santa Monica residents backed by AOPA filed more than 15,000 signatures with the Los Angeles County Registrar in hopes of amending the City Charter to require voter approval any future development at SMO.
Exactly two weeks later, in an attempt to give council members enough power to achieve partial closure of SMO and ensure development on the property is limited, the Santa Monica City Council unanimously approved a direction to find some sort of middle ground with a ballot measure that could compete with the AOPA initiative.
In March, the City Council unanimously adopted a plan to look into how SMO could either be shut down or have its operations significantly cut by July 1, 2015.
Many local groups are closely monitoring how Santa Monica and the FAA will sort out the future of SMO. One group, Airport2Park.org, hopes the City will shut down the airport and convert it into a park. Some neighborhood groups state the airport poses health and safety risks.
On the other side, airport activists stress the significance of having a functional airport in an urbanized region prone to earthquakes. Others point to the airport’s economic benefit to surrounding area. In some corners, there is an argument being made to keep the airport open in order to prevent the land from being developed with large mixed-use projects.
With this week’s filing, both sides will present evidence to the FAA as to whether SMO should remain operational through July 2015 or August 2023. Once a decision is reached, the “losing” party has a chance to appeal in federal court.