In a victory for general aviation, a U.S. District Court judge has dismissed a federal lawsuit brought by the City of Santa Monica against the FAA to close Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO) in southern California.
Santa Monica’s claim, filed in federal court in October 2013, asserted that when the city’s 1984 agreement with the FAA expires in 2015, it is no longer obligated to operate the land as an airport. The lawsuit asked the court to declare that the city held title to the land.
The FAA has consistently argued that the city is obligated to keep Santa Monica Airport open through 2023 under assurances it gave in exchange for federal Airport Improvement Program grants. The FAA also believes that the city is obligated to operate the airport beyond 2023 because it acquired the land on which the airport is located cost free from the federal government in 1948.
On Feb. 13 the presiding judge ruled that the United States government claimed a clear interest in the airport property and has never abandoned that interest.
In his decision against the city, Judge John Walter 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 to the airport has expired.
The judge’s decision was good news to supporters of the airport and to officials at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, who have been involved in the efforts to keep the airport open.
“The city was stopped in its tracks in its most recent effort to strangle Santa Monica Airport,” said Mark Baker, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “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.”
The airport, which is now surrounded by homes, was home to the Douglas Aircraft Co. in the 1920s. When factory operations expanded during World War II, many of the surrounding homes were built for the employees. Today, the airport, which has a single 4,973-foot runway, is home to 269 aircraft ranging from general aviation airplanes to helicopters and jets.
Over the years there have been many discussions about the future of the airport, with some in the city suggesting the airport has outlived its usefulness and should be closed and the land redeveloped. Complaints against the airport vary from noise and pollution to safety concerns about runway overruns.
Those concerns have increased since last September’s fatal crash involving a jet at the airport, said Kate Vernez, deputy city manager of special projects for Santa Monica.
“We have an obligation to the community that demands relief from airport operations,” she said.
City officials are “disappointed and surprised” by the court’s ruling, she added.
“Our city attorney and outside council are reviewing the ruling to determine options,” she noted.
According to Vernez, the city has 60 days to make a decision about how to proceed.