Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

City Council Votes On Plan To Restrict Aviation At SMO

 

April 28, 2014

The city of Santa Monica's efforts to discourage aviation activity at Santa Monica Airport (SMO) have had the desired effect. Piston aircraft operations have dropped 29 percent since landing fees were raised 2.5-fold last year and made applicable to all airport users, including based tenants. At the same time, the effect on business aircraft users of the airport doesn't seem as profound. One corporate operator toldAIN that even though his company is now paying almost three times as much for landing fees, company travelers still prefer SMO to other alternatives and will keep using the conveniently located airport as long as they can.

While members of the Santa Monica, Calif., city council signaled their intent to continue pursuing efforts to try to mitigate the effects of the airport in a unanimous vote at a March 25 council meeting, an initiative is under way to put the issue to vote by residents of the city of Santa Monica.

During the city council meeting, after four hours of comments by 98 members of the public–by AIN's count split exactly 50/50 between anti- and pro-airport proponents– the council members voted to support a proposed Airport Concept Plan that would close the door to most aviation-related uses of the airport land. The plan would also pursue efforts to assert the city's right to control the airport property, prepare for "possible closure of all or part of the airport after July 1, 2015," examine possible rezoning of the airport and changes to leasing policies to exclude many aviation uses, reduce lease terms to a maximum of three years and keep seeking community input on future use of the airport land.

While a 1948 Instrument of Transfer agreement with the federal government stipulates that SMO be operated as an airport in perpetuity, the city believes that a 35-acre parcel on the west side of the airport is not subject to that agreement. That parcel was added in 1949 and it carries 2,000 feet of the 4,973-foot-long SMO runway. Part of the city's efforts to make the airport less useful include possible closure of that 2,000-foot section of runway, and this would make the airport inaccessible to many jets.

Nearly all airport leases expire on July 1, 2015. This is also the date when a 1984 agreement ends, and this agreement obligated the city to keep operating the airport until then. Although city officials believe that the 1948 agreement doesn't prevent them from closing the airport, they acknowledge that the city accepted FAA grant money in 1994, and that more money was added to that grant in 2003. There are questions about whether the 20-year requirement to keep operating the airport after receiving a grant expires in 2014 or 2023, but city officials clearly believe that grant agreement will soon no longer apply.

During the council meeting, pro- and anti-airport proponents politely took their turns speaking for up to two minutes each before the city council members. Airport business owners bemoaned the loss of jobs that will come with reduced operations at the airport and the constraints of the new leases, which will be limited to a three-year term with one-year renewals. Part of the city's plan is to rezone the airport property for light manufacturing and studio uses, which may eliminate many of the current aviation-oriented uses of current leaseholders, such as fuel sales and flight schools. Those against the airport cited noise, pollution and safety as their chief concerns.

Airport commission chairman David Goddard told the council that aviation businesses at SMO generate about $1.2 million revenue for the city annually, while non-aviation tenants bring in $2 million a year. He suggested that after July 1 next year the city plans to take over the property currently leased by Atlantic Aviation, which serves the business jet market at the airport. "On July 1, 2015 if all the aviation leases expired," he explained, "we would lose $1.2 million. Atlantic Aviation currently collects about $4 million from its tenants and it pays the city about $200,000. On July 1, 2015 we will recover the improvements made by Atlantic Aviation and that income stream will be ours." He didn't mention what will happen to that revenue stream if the city decides to chop off 2,000 feet of runway or if it shuts down fuel sales.

According to the city staff recommendation report that supported the Airport Concept Plan, "For years, community members assumed that the City could close the Airport in 2015 when the 1984 agreement with the federal government will expire. However, it is now clear that legal disputes about the City's authority to close the airport will inevitably extend well beyond 2015, and their outcome is uncertain. And, beyond the legal controversies, some level of environmental assessment would likely be required to close all or part of the airport and that would take time."

The Airport Concept Plan outlined the next steps for the city: "Once council gives direction, staff will effectuate the specified leasing policy, assess options for minimizing adverse airport impacts in the short term, and begin the preliminary steps toward full or partial airport closure. Staff will report back to Council and the public this year."

As council member Kevin McKeown explained to AIN, "Closure is not the inevitable outcome of our initiating an Airport Concept Plan; the only outcome we categorically ruled out at the outset is development on that land other than the most low-impact uses. Santa Monica owns the land, and with the expiration of the existing agreement for use with the FAA our community wants to consider options."

Asked for its views of the SMO issue, the FAA provided the following statement to AIN: "In addition to the 1984 Settlement Agreement, the city and the United States have entered into numerous grant agreements which provide that the city must operate SMOas an airport for the use and benefit of the public. The city has also in the past recognized its continuing obligations under the Surplus Property Act to operate SMO as an airport."

 

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