21 Aug 2014
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Board Advises Early Legal Action to Modify, Close Airport

The Santa Monica Airport Commission urges city to use declaratory relief to clarify the legality of current agreements with the FAA. A judge's opinion could be used to either modify or close the campus.

Board Advises Early Legal Action to Modify, Close Airport Board Advises Early Legal Action to Modify, Close Airport

To avoid long and expensive court battles over any efforts to modify flight operations at , or even close it, the Airport Commission  recommends that the city first determine its legal rights via legislative action or a method called declaratory relief.

Simply put, declaratory relief allows the city to get a judge's opinion, before litigation, on whether the city has legal grounds to act.

The commission said the top issue needing clarification is whether the 1948 Instrument of Transfer from the federal government requiring the city to operate the airport "in perpetuity" is legal.

"If a judge rules in declaratory relief that we have the right to close the airport [whether or not the city chooses to do so], it's over—the matter is resolved," said Commissioner David Goddard. "[The legal move] is simple to do and we can do it now.''

The commission, which is an advisory board to the Santa Monica City Council, also recommends the city use declaratory relief to determine whether the 1984 operating agreement and a 1994 Grant Agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration actually expire by mid-2015. The FAA contends the Grant Agreement extends the '84 agreement until 2023.

Another recommendation is for declaratory relief on the status of one of the airport's three parcels of land, the "City Owned Parcel" at the west end. It was quitclaimed to the city in 1949 and includes nearly half of the airport's lone runway. The east-end "General Aviation Parcel" is covered by the 1948 document. The FAA contends that the "in perpetuity" requirement covers both key parcels.

However, the "City Owned Parcel" may fall outside the '48 mandate due to the later quitclaim. If so, the city would have the option of fulfilling the "in perpetuity" mandate with a much smaller airport on the "General Aviation Parcel." The airport's third section, on the southeast, is accurately titled the "Non-Aviation Parcel."

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Other commission recommendations include:

  • Charging landing fees to all aircraft, not just those based at other airports.
  • Raising landing fees to cover aviation costs. (Currently, the airport budget projects a deficit).
  • Requiring toxic tort liability insurance from all aviation operators.
  • Requiring a flight operations permit for each aircraft operation, a security measure also designed to protect the city from liability lawsuits.
  • Using the precedents of two cases from LA and New York to put a cap on—or reduce—the number of flights.

The commission believes these recommendations could be initiated now, and don't fall under the operating agreements. The panel is also working on recommendations for after mid-2015, which would depend on whether the operating agreements expire.

One complaint about pollution from SMO is the leaded fuel used by piston-powered planes. No lead-free fuel has been able to provide the potency and efficiency needed in such engines. However, recent developments could mean unleaded aviation fuel is coming into its own. The is offering a presentation on those efforts June 30. For more details on that event, visit futureofavgas.eventbrite.com.

The city also plans two other workshops on the airport's future during .

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