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SMO (So Many Options) Part 1

SMart (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow) 

The volume of discussion around the options for Santa Monica Airport (SMO) continues to increase, as does the amount of misdirection by those that seek to close the facility.  When persuasion requires misdirection, there is usually something wrong.  Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

In 2014, there were 64,625 registered voters in Santa Monica.  Of those registered voters, only 28,333 total voted, for a historically low 44% turnout, and not all even voted on Measure LC.  LC received 15,434 votes that suggested the closure of SMO (Santa Monica Airport) should be an option in the future. About 49,000 voters therefore either said to leave it open or didn’t cast a vote. The 15,434 closure votes only represent 23% of the current number of registered voters. Hardly a mandate, and with the current building frenzy and State housing demands what will that number represent in 2028. 

Measure LC

The essence of Measure LC was twofold.  First and foremost, it removed any participation of the city’s residents in the decision to close the airport, or leave it operational, and gave that power to the Council.  Second, it indicated a possibility for the Council to change the existing ultra-low density land use that is SMO with another low-density land use which was a park but also provided development options for recreational and educational purposes IF SMO were to close. However, LC does not mandate the closure of SMO, it only says a Council vote MAY be taken regarding change of use, and It vested the Council with the exclusive power to determine the options to be presented to the residents.  LC really was not about Local Control, it was all about Council Control, and that ultimately comes down to a majority vote by four members that would control the decision about SMO.

Section 640

Measure LC led to a change in the City Charter adding Section 640

“640. Regulation, management, and closure of Santa Monica Airport and future use of Airport land.

Subject only to limitations imposed by law, the City Council shall have full authority, without voter approval, to regulate the use of the Santa Monica Airport, manage Airport leaseholds, condition leases, and permanently close all or part of the Airport to aviation use.

If all or part of the Airport land is permanently closed to aviation use, no new development of that land shall be allowed until the voters have approved limits on the uses and development that may occur on the land. However, this section shall not prohibit the City Council from approving the following on Airport land that has been permanently closed to aviation use: the development of parks, public open spaces, and public recreational facilities; and the maintenance and replacement of existing cultural, arts and education uses.”

The 2017 Consent Decree

On January 30, 2017, the City entered into the Consent Decree with the FAA. Per the Consent Decree:  

“IF the City does not enter into future agreements with the FAA that continue to require the City to operate the Airport after December 31, 2028, the Parties agree that the City MAY, in its sole discretion at any time on or after January 1, 2029, cease to operate the Airport as an airport and MAY close the Airport to all aeronautical use forever, subject only to the applicable 30-day notice requirements set forth in 49 U.S.C. § 46319(a) and 14 C.F.R. Part 157.5(b)(2).”

Note the words IF and MAY.  Closure of all or part of SMO, under the Consent Decree, requires a majority vote of the Council and is so noted in the City’s March 2020 Airport Report.  In the absence of a council vote, SMO would be retained as an aviation facility, and such a vote cannot occur until January 1, 2029, or thereafter.  

City Council Resolution #11026 (CCS):

Following the Consent Decree, in February 2017, the Council passed Resolution #11026 (CCS) addressing the closure of SMO. 

However, a resolution is neither a regulation nor an ordinance and is not law. It is simply a ‘promise’ to pursue an action. A binding part of the resolution, as stated in Section 1, makes clear that any effort to close SMO must be  “…consistent with the terms of the Consent Decree…”, which is quoted above, indicating closure is not a mandated fact, but requires a vote of the City Council after December 31, 2028. In other words, a Resolution is a formal expression of an opinion, while an Ordinance is an authoritative rule of law enacted by a local government.  

What’s required to close SMO

A majority vote by the council is required to close SMO.  As noted above, that is a vote yet to be taken.  Regardless of that fact, the local press and closure advocates continue to headline and claim that SMO will (not “may”) close and cease aviation activity on December 31, 2028. That is not a fact. 

When confronted with the actual fact that a separate vote is required after December 31, 2028, closure advocates engage in an extremely deceptive sleight of hand by stating closure has been decided through Resolution #11026 (CCS), which was adopted by the council in February 2017.  They intentionally misrepresent that this resolution is a legally binding closure decision.  It is not. 

Cutting Through the Misinformation

The reliance of the closure advocates on misinformation with headlines that say the city council has voted to close the airport and is planning for a ‘great park’ is very concerning.  Sadly, it indicates that any pronouncements from these groups about what will or will not take place cannot be taken at face value.  Misinforming residents about this extremely important issue calls into question why is it so hard for them to simply present and clearly explain the facts. Why not do that, why not explain what other negative impacts may come should SMO cease operations? Moreover, these closure advocates steadfastly avoid any discussion of the risks associated with losing federal protection from the development of the current land use. 

While there is a vocal group that advocates for a “great park”, there is no definition in the current planning process for what is a “great park”.  What is included in both the City’s “A Public Process to Determine the Future of the Santa Monica Airport” document and in the City’s “Request For Quote” (RFQ) document to choose a consultant for the planning process is a discussion of “scenarios” that include the possibility of development and how to finance any change of use.  The City is also acknowledging risks associated with the State’s land use development laws that were not in effect in either 2014 or 2017.  The Public Process document notes the $16 million to $21 million annual maintenance costs of the park options and that the city has no current financial path to afford the maintenance let alone the $ 2 million+/acre a typical urban park costs to develop. Our Tongva Park cost more than $ 6 million/acre.

So what is the current SMO planning effort actually about? It should be read carefully, keeping in mind Measure LC, the Consent Decree, Section 640 of the City Charter, and the financial health of our town. It is a study to see what might be feasible to do with 227 acres of prime ocean view real estate in a development-hungry, high land value, beachfront community, by a city that is seemingly cash deprived, with incredibly high pension obligations, facing what may be hundreds of millions of dollars in child abuse litigation and has a “Community College” with a rapacious expansion program that has growth “potential” at the airport.

Next week we will continue with part two of the discussion of the future of SMO.

Bob Taylor, AIA
For SMa.r.t.

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building & Fire-Life Safety Commissioner; Thane Roberts, Architect; Robert H. Taylor, Architect AIA; Mario Fonda-Bonardi, Architect AIA Planning Commissioner; Sam Tolkin, Architect, Planning Commissioner; Michael Jolly ARECRE

For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing

in Opinion
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