Court dismisses SMO lawsuit

In a landmark decision, a U.S. District Court judge sided with the FAA in a motion to dismiss a federal lawsuit brought by the City of Santa Monica over the future of Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO).

In a case filed last October, the Santa Monica City Council asked the court to allow the city to use the airport property as it sees fit, including alternative uses. The lawsuit challenged the FAA’s claim that the city was obligated to operate the property as an airport or, if they do not, then the right of possession to the property could — at the option of the U.S. government — revert to the U.S.

The presiding judge ruled on Feb. 13 that the United States government claimed a clear interest in the airport property and has never abandoned that interest. The city had 12 years under the Quiet Title Act to bring suit against the federal government. In strong language, the judge wrote that the city either knew, or should have known, that the federal government claimed an interest in the airport property as long ago as 1948, and as a result the statute of limitations for the city to claim title of the airport has expired.

“The city was stopped in its tracks yesterday in its most recent effort to strangle Santa Monica Airport,” said Mark Baker, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). “The city is not representing its citizens. Surveys have proven the majority of Santa Monica residents support the airport, yet the city continues to spend millions of dollars of taxpayer money to shut down this economic engine that provides jobs and annual revenue of more than $200 million. Santa Monica Airport is vital to the city and to our nation’s air transportation system and it must not close.”

While the city has not revealed a new use plan for the area, previous city council proposals have touted the massive development potential for the airport property, including a large business park. In recent years, new development has been of significant concern to the city’s residents. Proposals have drawn sharp criticism ranging from the city water supply’s incapability to handle new development to increased traffic congestion that could slow down fire and rescue response time.

“We fully expect the city to make another run at closing Santa Monica Airport,” said Baker. “We will use absolutely every resource available to us to prevent that from happening.”

The city of Santa Monica has repeatedly attempted to restrict operations or close the popular airport, which serves as a reliever for nearby Los Angeles International Airport. On Feb. 10, AOPA and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) filed a friend of the court brief in support of the FAA’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

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Comments

  1. I have my plane at KSMO. Unfortunately, it’s the closest airport to my home by far. The airport commissioner is one of the proponents of closing the airport. You can watch some of the airport hearings at their website. The fact is that the City will use all means necessary to close the airport, which includes slowly strangling the airport by the use of ever increasing landing fees (which now have to be paid by tenants as well) – thus forcing out the flight schools and flight training facilities to other airports; non-renewal of leases to airport businesses, such as repair facilities, schools, and other related activities, and renting to non-aviation related tenants; non-renewal of the FBOs’ lease agreements, including Atlantic Aviation, which will have the result of removing most jets from the field. They have a game plan and the lawsuit was only a “Hail Mary”. The FAA must act to take the property over, or it will slowly be lost, piece by piece, until all that remains will be the runway!!!

    • Who would think that an Airport Commissioner would be trying to shut down his own airport?! I don’t think Santa Monica will be able to shut down the airport. Can they make it uneconomical to use? Maybe, especially since they are not taking FAA money. At the same time if they strangle the airport and make it impossible to use, maybe they will risk the FAA stepping in and taking the airport over anyway. I guess we will know more at their Feb 25 meeting.

      • Hi Sam; Once the FAA is out of the picture financially, I believe the “city” isn’t in any way longer or obligated to have (SMO) continue as an airport. As far as the FAA stepping in as the “St Bernard” on a rescue mission, don’t count on that. That said, I’m almost positive that any airport has to be sponsored in PART by a local (municipal/county) government initially and THEN they can request up to 95% funding by the FAA assuming funds are eligible for that airport. Kindly let me know the outcome, if you will, of the Feb 25th meeting at: get-aviation.com – thanks!

  2. Sam and others; as I recall from my airport development days, every time a municipal/county or other local/regional government operated airport is granted funds by the FAA, that airports “life” is guaranteed 20 years forward from that date. For example if Santa Monica accepted “X” dollars for infrastructure improvements from FAA Airport Funds on Jan 1, 2014, the airport MUST remain as such until Dec 31, 2034. But, I guess, ANY government agency has the “privilege” of breaking the law, don’t they?

    • They accepted their last grant in 1994, hence the 2015 date for closure. The FAA claims they are obligated until 2023. I have not been able to determine where the FAA got that date from. The 17 page ruling by the judge is pretty interesting if you have the time: http://www.aopa.org/-/media/Files/AOPA/Home/News/All%20News/2014/SMO_dismissal.pdf

      I don’t see Santa Monica accepting any more FAA funds. This will cause all airport expenses to be supported by the city of Santa Monica further strengthening the case that the airport is a drain on the city (which would not be true otherwise). If you have some more time you can look up the city and community partners plan to strangle the airport out of operation. That might not work that well as the will get Part 13 and 16 complaints.

      Incidentally, Meigs Field did not accept any FAA money (the city funded the whole thing), thus there was no federal requirement for them to keep operating it as an airport. They obviously did not go about shutting the airport down correctly (no NOTAMS, advanced notice, etc) and were fined for those infractions. I hope SMO is able to continue operating.

      • Hi Sam, Frankly, as you stated, IF the “city” isn’t accepting FAA Improvement Funds, I guess your correct that the city would be forced to “foot the bill 100%. That said, I would think it will come down to how MANY/MUCH corporate (Jet heavy weights) are based at Santa Monica and how much ‘political influence that have with the local airport authority assuming they wish to continue to be a “resident” there.
        Also, the Meigs incident, or ANY non-government (municipal/county) operated airport is always subject , LEGAL or not, to closure – government HAS the power!

        BOTTOM LINE: This will come down to a legal issue and the “integrity” of the courts!

        This situation would NEVER happen here, however, in NJ at (TEB) or (MMU) – just to many corporate and Fortune 500 firms based tenants at both fields.

      • Hi Again Sam;
        I did a quick lookup on airnav.com, not exactly reliable on the composite of an airports based tenants, but I’ll use their data as a point of reference.
        1. Santa Monica (SMO) has a few jet based tenants; about 7
        2. Burbank (KBUR) has approximately; 35 based jet tenants
        3. Van Nuys (KVNY) has the ‘honor” of 175 or so!
        My “crystal ball” take:
        1. Do to a lower number of jet tenants (little/weak or ZIP) political influence by the 7 jet tenants, lacks the strength of any significance to deter local politics to keep the airport open.
        2. Most likely, present jet tenants, seeing “their days may be numbered” may leave early BEFORE (hint of thing to come) airport closure becomes eminent by relocating to either ((KVNY) or (KBUR) OR?
        3. Given possible political/legal wrangling , and I’ll go WAY out on a limb here, airport will most likely be CLOSED to traffic on or before January 1, 2017.
        4. Had the QUALITY (jets, business use aircraft, etc) been in excess of say 15-20% of total number of based tenants, “survivability” may have been an option.

        Time will tell!

        • You bring up a good point Rod. Why aren’t the bigger operators at SMO involved in the fight? Maybe they are through supporting NBAA and AOPA. At the same time if there were no jets or turbo props there would either be no complaints, or the airport would have been shut down a long time ago because there would have been even less of a business case to support the airport.

          At the same time think of SMO as a big long grass runway like the Triple Tree Aerodrome nestled in a peach orchard. It has a restaurant, air museum, and all of the character it is missing now. It would be a focal point of the Santa Monica community. It would also have almost no jet traffic. I can dream can’t I?

          • Sam;
            I too loved the “good ole days”. I’m a big fan of the music of the “Big Band/Swing Era – born about 15-20 years to late – but several years ago, 1993-94, my “dream” came true. With the help of a Jazz Prof friend of my mine , now at Lehigh University, formed the Reeds, Rythm, & Brass Big Band and played at NY cities well known (then) jazz club, the Red Blazer II – MY “Walter Mitty ” thing! Kicked my classic Slingerland drum kit to “In the Mood, Woodchoppers Ball, and Don’t Be That Way. We ALL have our “dreams”- I sincerely hope yours comes true for you too!

            Oh, one last thing; if the airport was making $$$$ (self sufficient) you can bet the political climate would get “bright and sunny” (CAVU) real quick!

  3. It will be interesting to see what the City of Santa Monica will do next. I don’t see this as a major deterrent for their cause. My guess is their next move will be to challenge this 2015 date from the 1984 agreement or the other 2023 date which the FAA mentions. I don’t understand either of them, but that would be my guess.

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