It’s rare when the Santa Monica City Council dedicates an entire meeting to one topic, but the council is doing that Tuesday night, when the sole item on the agenda (beyond the consent calendar) will be the future of Santa Monica Airport.
And why not? Fifty years from now, the council members will be remembered, if at all, for what they do with the airport (or forgotten for what they don’t do).
As someone involved in the movement to close the airport and turn it into a great city park, I frequently have friends telling me that what we at Airport2Park.org are doing is great, but futile, because “the FAA will never let the airport close.”
It’s not a matter of legal analysis. They don’t have views about that. When I ask them how the FAA can force the City to operate the airport if the FAA doesn’t have the legal right to do so (assuming, yes, that the City can prove that in court), they shrug or roll their eyes.
We’re talking about some deep cynicism about the feds and the powers of politically-insulated, self-perpetuating, industry-captured agency.
In many ways, the staff report for Tuesday night’s meeting is a response to this kind of thinking because it outlines a practical (if, in my view, a somewhat too cautious) approach to extricating the airport land from the FAA’s grip. If the City’s lawsuit against the FAA was a bold stroke on constitutional and other high-minded principles, the staff’s recommendations want to treat the airport land like any other piece of real estate — not only real estate that the City can regulate under its municipal powers, but real estate that it owns and with respect to which it also has “proprietor’s rights.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that these tactics echo a line in a ruling the FAA issued in a 1998 proceeding brought by airport tenants seeking to negotiate from their landlord (the City) lease extensions beyond the expiration in 2015 of the 1984 Settlement Agreement between the City and the FAA. In that case the FAA itself ruled that after the City’s obligations under the 1984 agreement to operate the airport expires, what happens to the airport land will be “a local land use matter.”
Simple as that — “a local land use matter.” When the City finally pins the FAA down in court, where the issue will be the intent of the parties when they made the 1984 agreement, i.e., whether the parties to the 1984 agreement intended for it to supersede the infamous “perpetuity clause” in the 1948 Instrument of Transfer (IOT), the FAA is going to have a hard time explaining away that line from one of its official rulings.
In framing the airport’s future within the language and concepts of local land use matters, City staff recommends a series of measures. These include the re-leasing of airport facilities the City owns at market rates for the purposes of ending the City’s subsidies of the airport (but which will also open the airport up to non-aviation tenants that can pay higher rents); taking back and removing from airport use a crucial parcel of land that is not subject to the 1948 IOT (which would incidentally mean reconfiguring the airport with a much smaller runway that larger corporate jets could not use); reducing (or eliminating) aviation fuel sales at the airport; and otherwise requiring that all uses at the airport are compatible with the uses in surrounding neighborhoods.
These recommendations also echo recommendations that anti-airport organizations and the Airport Commission have made to reduce the impact of the airport and its operations, without necessarily causing a direct confrontation with the FAA. The anti-airport organizations have been vehement in exposing the negative impacts of the airport, and want the whole airport closed, but they have also been cautious in the tactics they recommend.
Meanwhile, perhaps the most striking sentence in the staff report is this one: “For years, community members assumed that the City could close the Airport in 2015 when the 1984 agreement with the federal government will expire.” That simple statement, which recognizes that it has always been the community’s understanding that the 1984 agreement was meant to the be the last extension of Santa Monica Airport’s operative life, should establish the context for all of the City’s future actions regarding the land there.
Land that will be the location for a great park.
Thanks for reading.