Santa Monica Airport Leases Return to Council

July 14, 2015
In The News

Controversial three-year lease deals for tenants at Santa Monica Airport drew hundreds of airport opponents the last time they went before the City Council, and now they are back on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting.

An email last week from attorney Jonathan Stein, who represents Sunset Park Anti-Airport (SPAA) and worked to defeat the failed pro-airport Measure D last year, enclosed a copy of a mailer Stein said was sent to more than 9,450 registered voters in Santa Monica urging them to turn out for the Council's meeting Tuesday.

Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution (CRAAP) also sent out an email blast Monday stressing the importance of the vote.

“Will Mayor McKeown and Council member Sue Himmelrich hold firm with their strong statements that they gave to the FAA in Washington D.C. on July 8, or will they yield to the opinions of their staff?” the group’s director Martin Rubin wrote.

“Will Santa Monica protect the public health of the airport's surrounding communities, or will they protect the aviation's continued use of the airport as is? We should know by Wednesday.”

Last week, Lieu brought a delegation of Santa Monica officials, including Himmelrich and McKeown, and 16 residents to a hearing before senior FAA officials in Washington, D.C. Most of those who spoke urged the FAA to relinquish its claim over the airport, including McKeown.

McKeown told FAA officials last Wednesday the airport “presents unacceptable safety risks” to neighboring residents and endangers their health.

Up for final approval are three-year lease deals for four airport tenants, including an aviation company, along with several month-to-month leases for other tenants, all of which set new rates at market prices. Both opponents and aviation industry officials are against the new agreements, but for different reasons.

SPAA and other opponents say the deals will extend the airport's life and prolong noisy and pollution-generating private jet flights for another three years.

Aviation officials say the new rates, which will raise nearly $10 million a year for the City, are too steep, not long enough, and are unfairly based on Santa Monica's overall market rates for office space.

Meanwhile, a 1984 Settlement Agreement aimed at resolving disputes between the City and federal government over airport noise, pollution, flight paths, hours of operation and numerous other issues  expired on July 1.

But new claims by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) are challenging the City's efforts to reclaim the airport property for other uses, said City Attorney Marsha Jones Moutrie in her report for the Council's meeting this week.

FAA officials are claiming that a 1948 document, called an Instrument of Transfer, obligates the City to “use the parcel covered by that instrument as an airport in perpetuity,” Moutrie wrote.

A second challenge came in letter to McKeown in March from NBAA CEO Steve Brown claiming the terms of a federal Airport Improvement Grant require the City to operate the airport and “remain effective until 2023.”

Brown challenged the legality of the three-year lease agreements, saying airport tenants are entitled to “an opportunity to sign long-term leases.” The month-to-month terms “certainly are non-compliant,” said Brown.

In her report Moutrie said her office is fighting the claims in federal court and through the FAA's administrative process, but she added it's “uncertain when each will end and most likely neither will conclude for another 2-3 years.”

Although the City still believes “that, as of July 1, 2015, it has the legal authority to determine the future land use, Moutrie conceded that “faced with these legal and practical realities” the City “is continuing to operate the Airport responsibly and lawfully, while taking all measures possible to reduce adverse impacts on local health, safety and welfare, including adverse financial impacts upon the City.”

Moutrie said the proposed 3-year agreements contain an exit clause allowing the City to terminate the contract if it regains control of the entire property before the terms expire in 2018.

But in the mailer, SPAA and Stein say Moutrie is misinterpreting the FAA's requirements regarding the three-year deals.

“That's 100 percent wrong,” said the mailer. “The FAA has made no written demand to renew any jet aviation leases.”

The mailer also citied a 2000 FAA determination that reiterated the City's obligation to operate the airport “only for the duration of the Agreement” through July 1, 2015.

Titled “Ask Them Why They Switched Sides To Favor 3-Year Jet Aviation Leases” the mailer lists Council members Gleam Davis, Terry O'Day, Ted Winterer, Pam O'Connor and Mayor Kevin McKeown as having “switched sides” to now favor the three-year deals.

Among those listed on the mailer as favoring month-to-month deals with all airport tenants are Santa Monica Council members Tony Vazquez and Sue Himmelrich, L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Venice, and U.S. Representatives Ted Lieu and Karen Bass.