Council votes to chip away at Santa Monica Airport
March 26, 2014
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  • City officials got the green light to start planning a potential downsize of Santa Monica Airport.

    City Council voted unanimously, 6 to 0, Tuesday to study a series of options for the future of the controversial airport.

    Mayor Pro Tem Terry O’Day left the meeting before the final vote. He had a family emergency.

    Some of the most severe options include closing a 20-acre parcel on the west end of the airport and restricting or prohibiting the sale of aviation fuel.

    More than 100 people signed up to speak on the topic and public comment lasted over three hours. Advocates on both sides of the issue showed up in large numbers. A group that wants to turn the entire airport into a park showed off its plans in the City Hall lobby, while aviation enthusiasts handed out stickers announcing their support for the airport.

    The council chamber filled up before the meeting began and it was standing room only on City Hall’s first level, where a live feed of the meeting was broadcast.

    Nearby residents have long protested the existence of the airport, complaining of noise and pollution created by the jets and propellor planes. Others fear for their safety, noting that the end of runway is about 300 feet from homes.

    Advocates point to the City Hall-sponsored report that estimates the airport brings in roughly $275 million every year. Were the freeway to collapse again, as it did during the Northridge earthquake, SMO would be Santa Monica’s lifeline to the outside world, advocates say.

    Several contracts from different years dating back to World War II govern the airport land. The Federal Aviation Administration believes that one key lease expires in 2023 and that another obligates City Hall to operate the land as an airport indefinitely. City Hall maintains that they’re out of the deal in July of next year.

    Last year, City Hall sued the FAA, attempting to find out who will control the airport after 2015, but the judge threw the case out saying, among other things, that the issue was premature. Recently, city officials have acknowledged that — thanks to likely litigation — the airport will probably stay open beyond next July. But, they say, there are some key provisions that expire with that lease that will allow City Hall to take some new actions.

    The western parcel, for example, is only required by the expiring agreement, city officials said. Council’s vote late Tuesday night allows city officials to consider shuttering that portion of the airport, shortening the runway and making it less attractive to pilots. Many aviation advocates said that making the runway smaller would also make it less safe.

    The sale of leaded fuel poses a safety and environmental hazard, said many residents and a few council members.

    With council’s vote, City Hall will study the feasibility of restricting or prohibiting the sale of fuel.

    Airport Commissioners have noted that restricting the sale of fuel could lead to decreased usage of the airport by pilots, although this reasoning was not addressed by council or city officials Tuesday night.

    All airport tenant leases expire within the next year and city officials had initially suggested approving shorter lease renewals for aviation tenants but changed their tune noting that it would be challenging to define and could be viewed, legally, as discrimination.

    State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Santa Monica) and Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin, who represents the Westside, spoke during the public portion of the meeting supporting City Hall’s recommendations.

    Numerous residents played videos of loud jets flying over their homes to demonstrate the disturbance to their quality of life.

    Advocates of the airport pointed to the fact that SMO has been around since the early 20th century and that all of the homeowners knew they were moving close to an airport.

    Some residents said that the small propellor planes didn’t bother them but the jets were unacceptably loud.

    After hours of public comment, the measure passed within less than 20 minutes of discussion from council.

    Councilmember Kevin McKeown made a few amendments, asking that city officials develop an Airport Concept Plan that would lay out a long-term plan for the area if the airport recedes.

    Mayor Pam O’Connor responded to some airport advocates’ claims that City Hall will over-develop the area if the land opens up. She called them “alarmists” and noted that because it is public land, the community will decide what happens.

    “This is not going to be served in any future decades by transit so it is a low-impact development if there is any,” she said. “It would not be being sold off to developers for any kind of high-rise development so that is just alarmism and it’s just not good form as far as I’m concerned.”

    City officials will develop plans for the area based on council’s recommendations and bring them back for a vote before the July 2015 expiration.