20 Aug 2014
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Santa Monica vs. FAA: By their words shall ye know them

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.

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.


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