Legacy time in Santa Monica

“All politics is temporal” is not as well known a phrase as “all politics is local,” but in these times I suspect it is more accurate. Voting has become more nationalized, but elections seem more and more to turn on voters’ immediate fears.  

Yet we best measure the achievements of governments in the long term because the success of government matches the success of society. Did we establish systems to feed, cloth, house, educate, and care for everyone? Did we protect the environment? Did we make our localities and the world a safer place for all? Did we build the bridges we need both physically and metaphorically? (One bright note, however, is that our oldest president ever is focused on building infrastructure for the future.)

I bring up the long term because at the Santa Monica City Council meeting Tuesday evening city staff will ask the council to begin a process the fruits of which will likely be harvested after many if not all the councilmembers have completed their tenures on the council. But fruits that will, if our civilization otherwise survives, be a legacy from our generation to those of centuries to come.

I am referring to a great park at the current site of the Santa Monica Airport.

Delayed almost three years by the pandemic, staff will ask City Council for authorization and funding to begin a process with the goal of having a shovel-ready plan ready when the City closes the airport on January 1, 2029, the earliest date the City can close the airport under the City’s 2017 agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration that settled the numerous then pending court cases and administrative actions between the City and the FAA. (Since entering the FAA agreement, council has voted to close the airport.)

I urge everyone, especially those who are new to the airport history, to read the staff report for Tuesday’s meeting. Then click on Attachment P to download and read a more detailed “Airport Conversion Report” that consultants prepared in March 2020 as part of the general update to the City’s Parks and Recreation Master Plan. Because of the pandemic, staff never published or delivered the report to City Council.

One schematic from the Airport Conversion Report

Regarding the history of the airport and the efforts to close it, I have written many posts over the years trying to explain the twists and turns. By way of disclosure, not only have I written about converting the airport to a park, but also, I am on the board of the Santa Monica Airport2Park Foundation, and I helped organize the campaign to win approval of Measure LC in 2014. This blog, however, is not written on behalf of the foundation or any other group.

Ahh, Measure LC. “LC” for local control. Under a 1984 agreement with the FAA the City had the right to close the airport in 2015, but as 2015 approached the FAA repudiated the deal. (Observing how the FAA functioned was the first time I had any comprehension of the hatred that some businesspeople have for “government regulators.”) The City fought back against the FAA. Fearing the FAA could lose in court, the aviation industry decided to make an end run around City Council with a ballot measure that would have perpetuated the airport. Once their paid signature gatherers had collected enough signatures to put their measure on the ballot, City Council responded with Measure LC. LC would perpetuate the City’s control over the airport, but mandate voter approval of any use of land removed from aviation purposes other than for parks and recreation. The City won when the voters passed LC with a 60-40 vote in 2014.

An artifact from the battle against the aviation industry in 2014.

The staff report and the 2020 report cover a lot of ground in terms of alternatives not only for what kinds of parks are possible, but also for how to pay for the park. It’s too early in the process to go into the substantive issues in depth, but there are a few points I want to make as the process begins.

• Don’t ever be discouraged. It’s not a walk in the park to build a great park, but we have the most important element: the land. Land worth conservatively $2 billion. Land that could never be assembled again on the Westside of L.A. for any purpose, particularly a public one. We also have time. The park’s final design and construction do not need to come all at once like Athena from the head of Zeus, but can evolve and take place, and be paid for, over decades. During the planning process, there will be furious arguments among equally well-intentioned people. That’s normal. Again, don’t be discouraged.

• Santa Monica is not a big city, but it has shown that it can do big things. Santa Monica operates Santa Monica State Beach, possibly the busiest beach in the country. It built the Annenberg Beach House with major philanthropic support. Forty years ago, it rebuilt the Pier. Santa Monica voters are public-spirited. Our local community college, which owns land adjacent to the airport, and our school district, have raised hundreds of millions of dollars with bond issues. Santa Monica voters have supported bonds for libraries and other public purposes. In addition, there are revenue streams currently flowing from the airport ($20 million/year according to the staff report) that could support revenue bonds and pay for maintenance and operations. (These revenues come from non-aviation sources.)

• Don’t ever let this become a fight between two goods, parks and housing, which are not in conflict but complement each other. The open land at the airport is irreplaceable and is needed to provide open space and recreation for the population of a more dense, post-sprawl city. There is room around that open land, in the already built-up parts of the airport land and in the adjacent business park, for housing, if that’s what the process yields. But a fight between park builders and housers will only help those who don’t want either. Which brings me to my most important point:

• Be prepared: the aviation industry is probably not done with us. As the process continues, and 2029 approaches, expect that at some point the industry will attack with another ballot measure. No doubt they will base their attack on fear of whatever is being considered – whatever it is. Again, good people are going to argue during the process of planning for the airport land. Let’s not let our arguments give fuel to those few who want this multi-billion-dollar public asset to remain in effect their property.

• Remember: this is our legacy, our bequest to the future.

Thanks for reading.

Start the Park

I’m out of town on vacation and so I’m going to miss the happy event, but a momentous occasion will be celebrated tomorrow, July 1, in Santa Monica, namely the beginning of the creation of a great park on the site of Santa Monica Airport. Today, June 30, 2015, is the termination date of the 1984 Settlement Agreement between the City of Santa Monica and the Federal Aviation Administration. While by all rights the City should be able to close the airport tomorrow, July 1, administrative proceedings and the course of the City’s litigation to establish its right are holding up that inevitable eventuality. However, the 1984 Agreement contained provisions (namely requirements to provide aircraft tie-downs) that unquestionably expire today and the expiration of those requirements frees up for City use about 12 acres of land south of the runway and north of Airport Avenue (in two parcels more or less straddling the existing Airport Park).

Under Measure LC passed by Santa Monica voters last November all land released from aviation use must be used for park and recreation purposes unless voters approve something different. The City Council has duly designated these 12 acres to be turned into a park, and the budget the council recently passed includes funds for an expedited process to plan the conversion of the land (now covered in asphalt) into parkland. These 12 acres will be the first of 170 or so acres of park that the City will ultimately create from the airport land.

With antecedents in the campaign to pass LC (and defeat the aviation industry’s Measure D), a new 501(c)(3) non-profit has been formed, the Santa Monica Airport2Park Foundation, to organize public support for the park conversion. The foundation is hosting a barbecue tomorrow at Airport Park, on land adjacent to the one of the new park parcels, and the public is invited. To view the invitation, and to RSVP, click here. (If you plan to attend, be sure to RSVP so that the organizers know how much food to get.)

Wishing I could be there! (But nonetheless enjoying where I am.)

Thanks for reading.

2014: A historic election in Santa Monica

Going back in history, there have been some big elections in Santa Monica, elections that made Santa Monica what it is.

In 1916 Santa Monica voters approved a water bond to create a municipal water system. In 1917 they voted down annexation by Los Angeles. In the ’20s Santa Monica passed another bond issue to acquire the Charnock wells in West L.A. and, armed with their own water, voters again defeated annexation. In 1939 voters prohibited oil drilling in the city. In 1954 voters prohibited oil drilling in the bay.

We may not remember the identities of the politicians from back then, but those votes and their consequences reside deep in the collective civic unconscious of all Santa Monicans.

Fifty years from now, if the Santa Monica election of 2014 is remembered, it’s not likely to be remembered for the elections (and machinations) I’ve been writing about the past two weeks. More likely it will be remembered (occasionally) when someone enjoying the big park that the City is going to build on the site of the Santa Monica Airport will reflect back, and recall how Santa Monica voters in 2014 overwhelmingly passed Measure LC, which for all practical purposes mandates that a park will replace the airport, and defeated Measure D, the aviation industry’s measure designed to prevent the City from closing the airport.

The aviation industry’s well-funded effort to subvert normal political process in Santa Monica had the result of making it more likely that the airport will close. The landslide, where roughly 60 percent of voters rejected the industry’s desperate attempt to preserve the airport, creates a political context for closure by invalidating any aviation arguments about what “the people really want.” This will reverberate up the political ladder—even to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and to Congress.

And when the airport closes, LC, because of its requirement of a vote on any development other than a park, means that the land now being used for aviation purposes, in the range of 160 or 170 acres, will become a park.

On a personal note, losing my campaign for City Council wasn’t fun, but it was a great privilege to serve on the Executive Committee of the Committee for Local Control of Santa Monica Airport Land (CLCSMAL), the grassroots political committee that raised money and coordinated the campaign to pass LC and defeat D. Participating in that campaign was the highpoint of 20 years of activism.

So where now? How do we get from the 2014 vote to closing the airport and building a park? Where’s the cup, where’s the lip, and where are the slips between?

The big date is July 1. That’s the day after the 1984 Settlement Agreement, and all the aviation leases, expire. Based on the City’s interpretation of its rights as owner of the airport land, that’s the day the City can close the airport.

But the City’s rights are in dispute. While there are various legal issues, ultimately there is one: the FAA claims the City can’t close the airport because of a “perpetuity” clause in a 1948 agreement. It’s unlikely the FAA will abandon that claim, and the City and the FAA are going to need their dispute adjudicated.

The key factor will be in what forum that litigation takes place. The City wants its claims heard in federal court, where it will stand on comparatively equal footing with the FAA. To that end the City sued the FAA in 2013, seeking “declaratory relief”—i.e., a declaration of the City’s rights ahead of its taking action to close the airport. The FAA wants the issue determined in its own administrative proceedings, where it controls the pace of the proceedings and benefits from certain presumptions. To stay out of federal court, the FAA argued that the relevant procedures did not allow for the City’s suit. The judge agreed and dismissed the case.

The City has appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The City filed its brief in October and the FAA filed its reply brief last week. It does not appear that the Appeals Court has set a date for oral argument. Possibly we’ll have a decision by July 1. If the City wins the appeal, and sends the case back to District Court, then there will be a trial—no doubt followed by an appeal by whomever loses.

If the Ninth Circuit upholds the dismissal of the City’s suit, tactics will be more complicated. District Court Judge John Walter, when he dismissed the City’s suit, declared that although he “would like to address the merits of the City’s claims,” he had to conclude, “reluctantly,” that under the Constitution he didn’t have jurisdiction because the City’s claims were not ripe for review.

To make the conflict ripe, the City would need to close the airport, or at least take action that would lead to closure unless the FAA intervened. (In the words of the FAA’s brief, “If, in the future, the City ceases to operate Santa Monica Airport as an airport, and if the United States opts to exercise its right of reversion, the underlying dispute may be litigated in an action brought by the federal government.”)

But aye, there’s the rub, because if the FAA takes action to stop the City, it’s likely at least to try to do so with administrative proceedings. The situation is tricky. The City shouldn’t do anything that calls into question its right to close the airport July 1, but it needs to be careful that it doesn’t trigger a FAA proceeding when it could still get the case into federal court.

In the meantime, the City is not powerless. Most significant, all the leases on the aviation land expire June 30. (Not to be confused with leases on non-aviation land that the City has controlled since 1984; these should be dealt with separately.) The City needs to take control of the properties it owns at the airport and collect market-rate rents from tenants and subtenants. Even if the City defers closing the airport for an interim period while its rights get sorted out, it will be informative to see how many aviation businesses can survive at the airport without the twin subsidies of below-market rents and the money they make by subleasing property at market rates.

These issues will be the subject of much discussion in upcoming months. For now what I wanted to do was to remind folks about what an important election 2014 was for the future of Santa Monica.

Thanks for reading.

Negatives (and proving and disproving them) about Santa Monica Airport

The campaign to collect signatures for the aviation industry’s initiative to perpetuate Santa Monica Airport (SMO) is coming to a head. If the initiative’s sponsor, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), through its phony grass roots organization “Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions,” doesn’t turn in enough signatures soon for county election officials to review, the initiative won’t make the November ballot. That would postpone a vote on the initiative until June 2016 because charter amendments, such as the AOPA initiative, need to be voted on at statewide primary or general elections.

The would be a disaster for the AOPA because by 2016 the Santa Monica City Council will have been able to create a real plan for voters to consider as an alternative to the airport. Until then the AOPA has the advantage because it can promote its initiative as an alternative to whatever parade of horribles it can conjure up for the future of the airport land.

Those Santa Monicans who want to close SMO, including those of us who want to turn the mile-long runway and adjacent areas into a great park, don’t fear a vote. We’ve always expected there would be a vote, because we expect that if the City Council votes to close the airport, the AOPA would mount a referendum campaign to put the council’s decision on the ballot.

That, however, would be a fair vote because the voters would have two concrete alternatives — keep the airport or do something specifically different. (I hope that something is a big park, in which case I’ll have to come up with a different adjective than “concrete” to describe the alternative.) Assuming the alternative makes sense, we believe we’d win that vote. (Putting massive development on the site, as AOPA signature gatherers say will happen, is not an alternative that makes sense.)

While the AOPA and its allies like to call us pro-park folks dreamers, the AOPA initiative is based on nightmares. The proponents of the initiative and other supporters of SMO don’t have to prove their claims while we opponents are left having to prove (or disprove!) negatives. Not only that, but besides requiring a vote on any airport plans the initiative also has provisions that would stymie any planning for a non-aviation future for the airport land or even managing the city-owned properties at SMO, without the city being overwhelmed with litigation.

I’ll tell you one thing — the truth doesn’t work for the signature gatherers. I’ve been part of the crew of residents trying to block the AOPA’s paid signature gatherers in grocery store parking lots all over town, and it’s been interesting to hear them make their pitch. The one truthful pitch, namely, to sign the initiative to “save Santa Monica Airport,” is a clunker. I’ve watched signature gatherers say that hundreds of times to passersby, and almost zero have responded.

There have been many unfounded arguments that the signature gatherers make, but none is more pernicious than one that if SMO doesn’t exist, flight patterns will change, and air traffic using LAX will fly low over Santa Monica. As is typical, I’ve never seen any evidence to back this up. Instead, the airport’s boosters leave it to airport opponents to prove the negative that air traffic patterns won’t change.

Neither I nor anyone else can tell you exactly what will happen to flying around here if the airport closes, but I can point out what looks like craziness when I see it. And it is crazy to think that LAX air traffic will change significantly.

Why? Flights landing at LAX descend gradually from the east. They take off over the ocean, then climb and turn if they are heading east, north or south. These are the most important patterns affecting flights in the area.

For instance, if you’ve flown from northern California, you know that flights from the north already fly over the Santa Monica Mountains and northern Santa Monica, but they fly fairly high. These commercial jets coming in from the north typically fly at altitudes between 6,000 and 9,000 feet. They need to be up high enough to fly east over downtown L.A. before making U-turns to descend into LAX. It’s absurd to think that if SMO isn’t there they are going to fly low over Santa Monica, Venice, Marina del Rey, and Playa del Rey to land at LAX from the northwest.

Similarly, if you fly out of LAX, you know that you sometimes turn and fly back over Santa Monica, but from the ground you know that those planes are already high enough not to be a nuisance.

Another reason that commercial flights will continue to fly high over Santa Monica and the Westside is that regardless of the presence of SMO, the sky up to about 7,000 feet is full of private aircraft. The best way to see this is to spend some time looking a flights over Santa Monica through the lens of the airport’s PublicVue website.

PublicVue Screen Shot showing flights around Santa Monica

PublicVue Screen Shot showing flights around Santa Monica

If you monitor PublicVue, you’ll see that there are flight paths along the coast for general aviation (i.e., non-commercial) flights, with connections to inland airports such as Van Nuys, Burbank, and Long Beach, that at altitudes around 4,000 to 6,000 feet are below commercial flight and above the LAX landing paths. The takeoffs and landings to and from Santa Monica Airport are, obviously, below these altitudes — it’s not the planes taking off from SMO and climbing to 1,000 feet or so that keep the big jets up high, above 7,000 feet, it’s all the other private planes passing through.

If you signed the AOPA initiative because a signature gatherer persuaded you that you needed to sign to keep LAX air traffic from swooping down low over your neighborhood, you can rescind your signature by filling out and signing a simple form, and sending to the City Clerk. You can get a copy of the form through the CASMAT website.

Thanks for reading.

Don’t. Sign. The. Phony. Airport. Initiative.

If you’ve bought groceries recently in Santa Monica, or if you will anytime soon, chances are you’ve been asked or will be asked to sign a petition for an initiative to “give the people the right to vote on the airport,” or to “stop overdevelopment at the airport.” Maybe a canvasser has come to your door.

Please, don’t sign the petition, and if you have signed it, please contact the City Clerk to withdraw your signature (details on that below).

Here’s the truth about the petition. The aviation industry, through its lobbying organization, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), is funding a sham initiative to change Santa Monica’s City Charter to keep Santa Monica Airport, which the City of Santa Monica owns, operating for their own private benefit. They’ve funded an army of paid signature-gatherers in a desperate move to derail 50 years of Santa Monicans’ trying to take control of the airport’s more than 200 acres of land, most of which residents bought and paid for with a parks bond nearly 90 years ago.

Back then, in the 1920s, flying was a still romantic thing, different from today. In what was basically an empty wilderness one could even think of a grass airstrip as park-like. In only a few years, however, accelerated by the run-up to World War II, aviation became an industry and the park became the site of Douglas Aircraft and one of the world’s largest factories — an arsenal of democracy.

Today, Douglas is long gone — it moved out when Santa Monica refused to condemn houses to extend the runway so that Douglas could build DC-8’s here — but the aviation industry remains, mostly in the form of private jet operators. The airport is a cash cow for them, subsidized by the City and made possible by low rents on leases dating back 30 years.

To take one example, according to data unearthed by the Airport Commission, Atlantic Aviation, the largest jet operator at the airport, pays the City rent of $200,000 per year, and then rents to sub-tenants for over $4 million per year. Meanwhile, the City has been subsidizing operations at the airport to the tune of $1 million per year. The average monthly rent aviation tenants pay the City is 6¢ per square foot — when the market rate is nearly $4!

All the residents of Santa Monica own the Santa Monica Airport and all of us should benefit from the airport land, not just a few.

Predictably, the industry has jumped on two popular themes in Santa Monica politics to create a smokescreen to cover the motives behind the initiative: the theme that the people need to take control over decision-making and the theme that the city is being over-developed. These themes were, of course, exemplified by Residocracy’s recent, successful campaign to get enough signatures to put the Hines-Paper Mate development to a referendum vote.

But there is no similarity between the Residocracy campaign — which was a genuine movement of residents, who did most of the signature gathering on a volunteer basis — and the aviation industry’s campaign, which has no roots among any community groups in Santa Monica and is funded entirely by the industry. In fact, community groups are lining up against the initiative — as of today, Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, Friends of Sunset Park, Mid City Neighbors and Northeast Neighbors have all come out against the initiative, with more opposition from more groups on the way.

The aviation industry’s initiative purports to be about giving the people the right to vote on the future of the airport, but that’s not what it’s about. Through the referendum process, as shown by the Hines petition, Santa Monicans can already bring any action the City Council takes about the airport to a vote.

Nor is the initiative about preventing overdevelopment. The City Council in a “wall-to-wall” unanimous vote at a meeting in March initiated a process to ensure that there will not be intensive development on the airport land, a process that can lead to building a great public park there. The fact is, as expressed by Mayor Pam O’Connor at the council meeting in March, the airport is not a good place for development, since it’s poorly connected to transit corridors and the street grid.

The initiative is about stopping any planning for alternatives at the airport. According to the AOPA website, the initiative“requires the city to continue to operate the airport in a manner that supports its aviation purposes and stipulates that the city cannot impose new restrictions that would inhibit…the full use of aviation facilities.”

The purpose of the initiative is to prevent any change at Santa Monica Airport.

Airport businesses have known since 1984 that Santa Monica would take control of the Airport land in 2015, and that it was likely that the City would close the airport. The airport businesses say it’s the residents who moved near the airport and who therefore should forever bear the burden of increasing jet traffic, yet it’s the businesses that have known for 30 years that their time was running out. Now they are using this phony initiative so they can keep feeding from the public trough.

You can expect to see a lot of signature-gatherers in the next couple of weeks. Although the AOPA has six months from April 10 to get the 9,000 or so signatures it needs to get the initiative on a ballot, to place the initiative on this November’s ballot, the AOPA needs to get those signatures by mid-May at the latest to cover the time it takes for the County to certify the signatures and the City Council to review the measure before it goes on the ballot.

If the AOPA doesn’t get the initiative on this November’s ballot, because the initiative calls for a charter amendment it could not be voted on earlier than the June 2016 statewide primary election. By then the AOPA knows that the City Council will have had plenty of time to craft a plan for the future of the airport land that the residents of Santa Monica will support. This is the aviation industry’s last chance to stop the City and its residents from taking control of their property at the airport.

Thanks for reading — and thanks for not signing the petition.

(If you have already signed the petition, and want to rescind your signature, call the Santa Monica City Clerk’s office at (310) 458-8211.)

Turning Santa Monica Airport into a local land use matter

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.

Future park.

Future park.

Santa Monica vs. FAA: By their words shall ye know them

As someone who wants to turn Santa Monica Airport into a big park, I have been following the lawsuit that the City of Santa Monica filed against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to confirm that the City controls the airport land and will have the right to close the airport after July 1, 2015, when the current, 1984 settlement agreement with the FAA expires.

As discussed in my post a couple of weeks ago, in response to the lawsuit, the FAA filed a motion to dismiss it on jurisdictional and procedural grounds. This weekend I read the City’s response to the motion. (The motion will be heard February 10 in federal court in downtown Los Angeles.)

While the federal government moved to dismiss on various grounds, the most fundamental one was that the City’s claim was barred by the 12-year statute of limitations of the federal “Quiet Title Act.” According to the feds, the City’s claim is too late because the City should have known decades ago that the federal government was claiming an interest in the title to the property under the 1948 Instrument of Transfer (IOT) that returned control of the airport to the City after World War II.

As readers will recall, the FAA is relying on a clause in the IOT in which the City agreed to operate the airport in perpetuity. However, there was no consideration for this agreement, nor is there any way for the government to enforce it.

The City’s response to the motion doesn’t add much new information that was not contained in the its original complaint, but reading it brought home how preposterous it is that after all these decades the FAA is arguing that Santa Monica can’t close the airport because of the IOT.

This graphic shows the sizes of all existing Santa Monica parks at the same scale as what could be the park to replace the airport.

This graphic shows the sizes of all existing Santa Monica parks at the same scale as what could be the park to replace the airport.

In fact, it was only in 2008 that the FAA, which I suspect had begun to panic when it realized that 2015 was coming up in less than 10 years, dredged up the IOT’s perpetuity clause. Before then FAA administrators and lawyers must have looked at the history and the law and realized that this argument didn’t have a wing or a prayer.

Why do I say that? Because the city’s response highlights several documents from past decades where the FAA declared the obvious, that the City had the authority to close the airport. For instance, in 1971 (only 23 years after the 1948 IOT) the FAA wrote the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association to tell them that once Santa Monica no longer had obligations arising from funding provided by the FAA, the airport would be “vulnerable to being discontinued and used for non-aviation purposes.”

As discussed previously, the 1984 settlement agreement clearly states that the City is only obligated to continue operations at the airport until the 2015, but to remove any doubt that this means precisely what it says, in 1998 the FAA issued a determination that the 1984 agreement “makes clear that the City is obligated to operate the Airport only for the duration of the [agreement]… To the extent that [pilots] seek to prevent the future closure of the Airport . . . that is a local land use matter.”

“A local land use matter.” Wow.

In 2003, at the conclusion of the same proceeding, the FAA ruled that the 1984 agreement only required the City to maintain the airport’s “role in the National Airport System as a general aviation reliever airport until July 1, 2015.”

The City’s point is that only in 2008 when the FAA changed its tune was the City put on notice that the FAA had designs on the land, and that the 12-year statute of limitations only started running then.

Not only does this argument seem obvious to me, but also, regardless how the judge rules on the motion, one has to wonder, when and where this dispute ultimately ends up in court, how will the U.S. Attorneys defending the FAA try to explain away the FAA’s own admissions that on July 1, 2015, the City of Santa Monica can close down Santa Monica Airport.

Thanks for reading.

Growing a park at the airport: step by step

It’s been about a month since Santa Monica sued the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to confirm the City’s rights to control the future of Santa Monica Airport. The FAA still has a month or so to answer the City’s complaint, but in the meantime a lot has been going on that’s relevant to whether the airport will become a park.

For one thing, the FAA is losing political support, which could be critical as decisions are made in Washington. Although our representative in Congress, Henry Waxman, has said he won’t make any pronouncements about what he thinks the future of the airport should be until he feels he knows the wishes of his constituents, that has not stopped him from taking an increasingly aggressive attitude toward the FAA’s indifference to the rights and safety of those who live near the airport.

As reported in the Lookout News, the congressman, in response to concern from residents that a jet could overshoot the runway and devastate homes, recently wrote the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) requesting that the NTSB accelerate its review of the tragic crash in September that killed Mark Benjamin and three others.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, whose district borders the airport and includes West L.A. and Mar Vista, sent a letter Nov. 7 to the FAA calling for the agency to consider allowing Santa Monica to close the airport after expressing her conviction that the “airport represents a danger to the health and safety of surrounding residents.”

While the FAA is committed to defending aviation, it has to pick and choose which battles to fight and how hard to fight them. Notwithstanding its efforts, hundreds of airports have closed in past decades, and it must have some institutional knowledge about when a cause is more likely lost than winnable. The FAA is used to congressmen and women who want something from it, like funding for a new radar tower. When the representatives no longer support a local airport, then the FAA has to start wondering whether it’s worth using its resources to defend it.

While all of this is going on at the rarefied Congressional level, Airport2Park.org, the local group formed to advocate for turning the airport into a park, is picking up support locally. The Westside Neighborhood Council of the City of L.A. passed a resolution two weeks ago supporting A2P’s efforts, if the airport closes, to build a park there.

At the same time there’s been other news in Southern California that is relevant to turning the airport into a park – news about two other park projects.

First, in the big picture department, last week the L.A. Times reported on a proposal in Long Beach to turn a piece of underused freeway into a park, to serve a neighborhood that is “boxed in by refineries, rail yards and truck routes.” According to the Times, “city officials are considering a radical makeover of west Long Beach that would involve ripping out a one-mile section of one of the Southland’s first freeways, now mostly used by truckers, and replacing it with a long ribbon of green space.”

I bring this up because I still hear from people who think that turning the airport into a park is a fantasy. Meanwhile, all over the world cities are doing great things with the gritty leftovers from the industrial era. I.e., if Long Beach can turn a mile-long piece of freeway into a park, then Santa Monica can do the same thing with the airport’s mile-long runway, which fewer people use than the freeway.

The other story is a cautionary tale that falls in the “avoid this” department. Perhaps you’ve been reading about the troubles that the City of Irvine has had with financing the “Great Park” that it planned to replace the 1,300-acre El Toro air base. Irvine expected developers to pay for the park, and built 200 acres with the initial cash it got, but after the 2008 market crash there was no money to finish the park. Now Irvine is debating an offer from a developer to pay for a scaled-down version of the park in return for the right to build about 4,600 homes.

The lesson: don’t rely on developers to build important public infrastructure. There is no free lunch. Design a park that’s worth spending taxes on. Get over the idea that the public realm isn’t worth paying for, and we’ll have a public realm that is worth paying for.

Thanks for reading.

The park created in Chicago on the former Meigs Field.

The park created in Chicago on the site of the former Meigs Field.

Storming FAA beach

For a while now the groups of residents seeking to close the Santa Monica Airport have been counseling caution in dealing with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The City of Santa Monica was so bruised by losing its case against the FAA over big corporate jets that the groups, the chief of which are Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic (CASMAT) based largely in the Santa Monica neighborhoods of Sunset Park and Ocean Park, and Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution (CRAAP) based largely in the L.A. neighborhoods of Mar Vista and Venice, proposed strategies and tactics that — t’ai chi ch’uan style — avoided a head-on clash with the FAA.

You know what t’ai chi masters say is the way to stop an oncoming train from running you over, don’t you? It’s “step off the track.”

The FAA’s train was a covenant in a 1948 “Instrument of Transfer” by which the federal government released its wartime interest in the airport; the covenant on its face required Santa Monica to operate the airport in perpetuity. In all the decades of litigation over the airport the feds had never tried to keep the airport operating by invoking this clause, but a few years ago — getting desperate? — FAA administrators grabbed hold of the covenant and threatened Santa Monica with dire consequences if the city tried to close the airport in 2015, after the city’s agreement to keep the airport open until then, contained in a 1984 Settlement Agreement with the FAA, expired.

In the t’ai chi philosophy of martial arts one defeats one’s foe by yielding and “sticking” to them rather than opposing force with force, and in true t’ai chi fashion the tactics of the anti-airport groups involved two gambits. One focused on a parcel of land, called the “Quitclaim Parcel” because the City obtained it by way of a quitclaim deed from the federal government in 1949, which was not covered by the Instrument of Transfer, and the other on the leases to aviation companies at the airport that expire in 2015.

The tactics were (1) that the city would take back the Quitclaim Parcel, which would reduce the airport’s runway from 5,000 to 3,000 feet and preclude big corporate jets from using the airport without directly challenging the “perpetuity” covenant, and (2) that the city would simply not renew the aviation leases, thus drastically reducing the functionality of the airport.

Although I had several times written in my Lookout column that the airport should close when the 1984 Settlement Agreement expired, I didn’t get to know the people in the anti-airport groups until I ran for City Council in 2012. I met them during the campaign, and what impressed me about them from the start was how practical they were.

It’s easy for residents to make demands on the city without always considering legal, economic and other realities, but the anti-airport groups never took anything for granted. They researched everything about the airport, from its history, including the legal history of each parcel that makes up the airport, to operations — such as analyzing flight data to reveal that about half of all takeoff and landings at the airport came from flight schools that operated out of leased city-owned buildings.

Then, knowing that fighting the FAA in court would be expensive and grueling, they came up with their strategies based on the Quitclaim Parcel and the leases. They demanded action from the City, but the actions they demanded were measured and cautious.

So what happened?

Well, blow us all away, but forget yielding and sticking. Last Thursday the City of Santa Monica went to battle against the FAA more like Marines landing on a beach. As I’m sure readers know, the City filed suit against the FAA seeking to quiet title on the airport land, asserting, among other arguments based on the language of the documents and, in some cases, the FAA’s own policies, that the perpetuity covenant in the Instrument of Transfer violated the City’s constitutional rights under the Fifth and Tenth Amendments of the Bill of Rights.

If you haven’t read the Complaint, I urge you to do so. It’s written in plain, non-legal language. The arguments based on the facts — and I can’t wait to read the legal briefs supporting them — are powerful.

SMO Complaint (10-31-13) page 1 cropped

A few things are clear. The City — and that includes the council members, City Manager Rod Gould and his staff, and City Attorney Marsha Moutrie and hers — not only listened to the community groups, but also studied the history of the airport they and others (notably environmental lawyers at UCLA) had unearthed.

As a member of Airport2Park.org and looking forward the great park the City will build at the airport, I’m thrilled by the bold action the city took.

But I also want to mention that the city’s complaint preserves the city’s rights to take back the Quitclaim Parcel (which it explicitly clarifies as not coming under the Instrument of Transfer) and terminate the airport leases.

In a future post I’ll go into the complaint in more detail, but for now — Bravo!

Thanks for reading.