As the date for Santa Monica City Council to discuss the future of leases at Santa Monica Airport (SMO) fast approaches, anti-aviation proponents have began re-mobilizing the ranks in an effort to eventually cease airport operations altogether. Airport tenants are also preparing for battle in a push to save their businesses.
Santa Monica City’s Airport Commission, which consists of five local residents, and no-one from the airport itself, voted Monday evening to support a move to month-to-month leases for SMO tenants, following the City’s regaining of control of almost all airport land on July 1 this year.
The Commission decided that a lease longer than month-to-month in terms, does not serve the interest of the City, according to David Goddard, Airport Commission Chair. The Commission’s decision will be presented to council for consideration.
“The City has far more flexibility on a month-to-month lease and if a tenant is granted a longer term lease and the City subsequently decides it wants to change the use of that land, it would be unable,” Goddard explained.
The situation has come to light following the passing of Measure LC at the November 2014 elections, which returns control of most of the airport to Santa Monica City on July 1, 2015.
Current rumors are rife in neighborhoods surrounding SMO, with community groups concerned that three-year lease extensions, alluded to in several negotiation documents between the City and FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), could indeed become reality in the coming months.
“City Council has previously voted to offer three (3) year lease extensions which would run through June 30, 2018 and is in the process of considering proposed lease guidelines,” states Santa Monica’s Motion to Dismiss the Part 16 Complaint of Nation Business Aircraft Association, et, al, dated August 14, 2014.
Santa Monica City Hall has issued repeated assurances that no such policy, and indeed no policies whatsoever on lease extensions for aviation and non-aviation tenants, has been adopted.
“Our voters were clear that they want the City to control the future of the land we own at what is now an airport, and we shall implement that mandate,” Santa Monica Mayor Kevin McKeown explained.
A public hearing before City Council on the issue has been scheduled for March 24, the Mayor confirmed.
Under the grant assurances agreed to by the City when it accepted federal funds in 1994, the City is required to act reasonably in leasing space to aviation tenants, according to attorney and pilot David Shaby II.
According to Shaby, the 20 years run from when the airport last used the funds.
“The majority of those funds were for the construction of the blast fence, which was done in 2003,” he said. “The FAA has stated that the grant assurances extend until 2023…if in fact they ever expire.”
The grant assurances require that the City of Santa Monica provide leases that are commensurate with other aviation leases in terms of duration and amount, charged at other airports in the surrounding area, according to Shaby.
Offering only month-to-month leases to aviation tenants when other airports offer five-year leases, is a violation of Santa Monica’s obligations and will subject it to litigation with the FAA, he added.
For many surrounding neighbors, they want the airport out, or at very least, reduced to minimum FAA requirements.
“Jets and propeller aircraft fly over my house every five minutes,” said Jonathan Stein, Treasurer of Sunset Park Anti-Airport. “They spew the same carcinogens that killed my Grandpa Joe, who owned a garage in Brooklyn. They rain lead molecules over a dozen schools that are known to cause developmental disabilities in children. And I have invested over $1 million in a house on the premise the airport would close in 2015, which has been the City’s official public policy since Resolution 6296 passed in 1981.”
Prior to purchasing his house in 1993, neighbor Alan Levenson was also told that the airport would be closing in 2015 when the 1984 agreement expired, explaining that the airport did not seem such a “bad neighbor” back then.
“There were lots of interesting smaller planes, some from WWII, occasionally a DC 3 would thunder by, and we were and still are treated to the Goodyear blimp dipping low and rumbling past. On several occasions the Presidents helicopters landed at SMO,” Levenson said.
“In the 20 years we have been living here jet traffic has gone from one or two a day to as many as 80 take off and landings in a day,” he added.
While also supporting suggestions to transform the airport into a park, Levenson said that at a minimum, the runway should be made much shorter and FAA-required safety zones installed at each end of the airport.
“We should discontinue sales of leaded fuels and toxic jet fuel at SMO and consider the health and safety of neighbors of the airport in Santa Monica and Los Angeles,” he said.
Caught up in the middle of the debate are non-aviation tenants at SMO.
Typhoon restaurant has called SMO home for 20 years. According to Shaby, the business would like to spend a minimum of $250,000 in repairs, remodeling, and equipment.
“In order to borrow the funds necessary to do the work, financial institutions require that the Typhoon have a lease with a term of sufficient length to be able to repay the loan,” he said. “A month to month lease is completely inadequate.”
“The Typhoon requires at least a 10 year lease in order to have a competitive business. Without that, the Typhoon has no option but to close its doors at the expiration of its lease later this year,” he said.
Aviation businesses are also facing the threat of uncertainty. Kim Davidson Aviation is a small airplane mechanic service that employs over 20 people.
“I need to give my people some assurance that I will be here in the future and that they will have a job. If I had to close my doors they would be out in the street with no way to feed their families or pay their rents,” Davidson said.
Many tenants said that they have spent their lives setting up businesses at SMO, and simply upping and leaving would be catastrophic to their futures.
In terms of practicality, according to City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, “City staff has suggested protecting airport revenues, including rents, while the Airport remains open.”
The issue of tenants sub-letting their spaces and reaping in massive profit margins has also been raised; questioning the wording of current leases, and the ability to legally operate such practices, and causing some to call for the City to benefit from market-rate Airport rents.
If this situation were to occur, any raise in rents by the City, according to Santa Monica Airport Association Board Member Mark Smith, would have to stay in the airport fund.