Beginning the end at SMO

With the latest developments concerning the future of Santa Monica Airport (SMO), I’m willing to say that we’re at the beginning of the end. One way or another, the future of the airport will be sealed within two or maybe three years. I’m optimistic enough (I hope not foolish enough), to say that the end that we’re at the beginning of is the end of SMO as an airport.

So what’s happening? For one, Tuesday night the Santa Monica City Council will vote to close down aviation uses at SMO “as soon as legally permitted,” and with a goal of July 1, 2018. This action will be important, because formally deciding to close the airport will clarify the City’s position in at least two court cases. The council’s action, however, will not be the primary reason we’re at the beginning the end: merely saying something is so doesn’t make it happen.

More important to closing the airport was that last week the City lost an appeal at the Federal Aviation Administration. Yes, losing the appeal was good news. The appeal was of an FAA administrative decision that the City had to operate the airport until 2023 because of money it received from the FAA in 2003. The L.A. Times made a big deal about the City losing the appeal, saying that Santa Monica had “lost another round in effort to close” SMO, but in terms of the timeline to close the airport, in fact it was a victory for the City to get the FAA finally to make a decision, which the agency had continually delayed. The City should have lost this battle a year ago!

Now that the City has the decision, it can appeal it to a neutral forum, namely the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal. Unfortunately the Ninth Circuit is backed up, and based on the experience with other SMO litigation it’s likely that the City won’t have a decision for at least 18 months. The City’s case is strong, however, as the FAA administrators had to stretch to rule against Santa Monica. I predict that the City will win this appeal.

Speaking of the Ninth Circuit, it’s mostly because of a Ninth Circuit ruling that I’m willing to predict that we are beginning the end. That was the decision back in May when a three-judge panel unanimously reinstated the City’s own case against the FAA. The City brought that case to have the courts declare that the City could close the airport notwithstanding a clause in a 1948 agreement under which the City agreed to operate SMO in perpetuity, but the trial judge in the case had dismissed the City’s complaint on procedural grounds. The City claims that the perpetuity clause is not enforceable; it’s impossible to read the Ninth Circuit opinion and believe that the judges disagree with the City.

As a result of the reversal on appeal, there will now be a trial on the merits, and as of last week there is a trial date: August 29, 2017. (See you in a year, on an Expo train to the federal courthouse in downtown L.A.)

Whoever loses at trial is bound to appeal, and so both the appeal of the FAA ruling and the City’s case against the FAA will grind on for at least two years. No doubt that’s why the City Council resolution to be voted on Tuesday calls for a goal of closing the airport July 1, 2018.

There are questions about what will happen in the meantime at the airport. Specifically, a number of anti-airport activists want the City to evict aviation tenants at the airport whose leases expired in 2015. In particular, the focus is on Atlantic Aviation, which is responsible for nearly all the jet traffic at SMO.

It’s hard not to sympathize with these activists and their arguments, since after a business loses its lease, that’s usually it. (No rent control for businesses!) But the City has walked a fine line on the leases—for good reasons, and to good effect. What the City has done is to take steps to reduce the profitability of the aviation businesses at SMO, and then negotiate with them to leave voluntarily. Primarily this has involved taking away lessees’ rights to grant subleases, which was a big source of profits. Using these strategies, which have included carrots as well as sticks, the City has caused two of the largest aviation businesses at the airport, Gunnell and Justice Aviation, to leave.

Originally the City’s caution with the leases arose from fear that that if the City evicted the aviation businesses, the FAA would seek an injunction, as it has in past litigation with the City, to freeze operations at SMO. In other words, the FAA would claim that the City was closing the airport de facto, and had to be stopped with an injunction.

So far the FAA hasn’t done that. We don’t know if the agency has held back because the City hasn’t given the agency grounds to do so, or because the agency is concerned that it would lose in court. We don’t know what would happen if the City evicts Atlantic, but certainly it would be better if Atlantic should choose to vacate as Gunnell and Justice have done.

The City now has another reason to be careful. Now that it has its cases where it wants them, in federal court, the City has to be cautious not to do anything that would annoy or anger the judges hearing the cases. Judges don’t like to be shown up. If a plaintiff is asking for relief from a judge, the judge doesn’t want to hear (from the defendant) that the plaintiff has gone off and taken its own action before the judge can make a decision.

As much as I wish we could wish the jets away, and turn SMO into a great park sooner, I have to take the side of caution and . . . patience.

Thanks for reading.

3 thoughts on “Beginning the end at SMO

  1. Pingback: Gruber : That Boot Dropped at SMO | Santa Monica Next

  2. Pingback: That boot dropped at SMO | The Healthy City Local

  3. Hey Frank,
    Your post (as usual 🙂 is historically and factually grounded, and legally informed, leaving me reassured that your predictions will prove to be true. I believe the path to closure you describe is the one of least resistance and, ultimately and most importantly, the quickest. Atlantic obviously sees the writing on the wall… It makes wonder whether they’ll cut bait and move on. Wishful thinking probably!

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