On Nov. 4, a ballot initiative to give the Santa Monica City Council more control over operations at Santa Monica Municipal Airport (KSMO) in Southern California was approved by voters, signaling — for some — a death knell for the embattled airport.
Measure LC allows the City Council to manage the airport as it sees fit, including closing all or part of the 227-acre property. The measure, which passed with a 60% margin, mandates that the airport land be used only for parks, open space and recreational facilities until voters can approve land-use guidelines.
It had the backing of several community groups which have been trying to close the airport for years, citing safety concerns and calling the airport a playground for “rich hobbyist pilots.”
A second ballot measure concerning the airport, Measure D, went down in defeat with only 42% of the voters casting a yes vote. Measure D, which was endorsed by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and other aviation advocacy groups, called for a public vote before any changes could be made that impacted aviation uses at the airport.
Measure D also required the city to continue to operate the airport “in a manner that supports its aviation purposes” and stipulated that the city “cannot impose new restrictions that inhibit the sale of fuel or the full use of aviation facilities.”
The headline in the Nov. 5 issue of the Los Angeles Times stated “Voters kill airport.” The article went on to quote John Fairweather, a leader of the local anti-airport campaign, who described the passage of Measure LC as “a mandate from the people.”
According to Fairweather, Measure LC will allow the city to pursue its starvation strategy for the airport, which includes shortening the runway, reducing fuel sales, and eliminating aviation-related leases until the facility can be closed, perhaps as soon as next year.
Attempts by General Aviation News to reach Fairweather for comment were unsuccessful.
City officials have not announced what they plan to do with the airport.
“It’s early to speculate the future of the airport, as the City Council has not made a decision on the airport’s future,” said Debbie Lee, communications and public affairs officer for the city. “The passing of Measure LC preserves the City Council’s existing authority to determine the future of Santa Monica Airport and restricts any new development other than park or open space on airport land until the voters have approved a specific plan. The council will carefully consider both the leasing guidelines and airport operations with input from both the community and the Airport Commission.”
The future of the airport is on the agenda for the upcoming city council meetings, she added.
Approximately 400 aircraft are based at KSMO, which is a reliever field for busy Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
The FAA maintains that, according to the original instrument of transfer that established Santa Monica Airport in the 1940s, the airport must remain an airport in perpetuity. In addition, since 1985, the city has accepted approximately $10 million in airport improvement grants from the FAA with the condition that the airport stay in operation through 2015. According to the FAA, another grant in the sum of $240,000 given in 2003 pushes the closure date out to 2023. City officials disagree.
During the weeks leading up to the November election, opponents of Measure LC noted that closing the airport would not be economically feasible because the airport is an economic engine, and the city relies on funds from lease payments and taxes generated through airport operations. A park or open space would not provide this income.
In addition, redevelopment of the property into a tax-generating commercial mixed use facility consisting of office space and multifamily housing would increase traffic congestion in the area, which would likely be louder and bring more pollution than the current air traffic, airport advocates say.
For decades, the land-locked airport has been threatened by efforts to curtail aviation operations. Methods used in the past to restrict operations at the airport have included landing fees, lawsuits, delays in renewing ground leases, and attempts to restrict the types of aircraft operations allowed, for example a ban on jet traffic and touch and goes.
In the meantime, aviation advocacy groups, including the California Pilots Association and AOPA, have not given up their efforts to protect KSMO.
“We are tremendously disappointed that the City Council will be able to continue business as usual when it comes to attempts to close and redevelop the airport,” said Bill Dunn, AOPA vice president of airports. “But that doesn’t mean SMO is closing or we’re giving up on it.”