Washington, DC, Oct. 14, 2016 – Today, National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) President and CEO Ed Bolen cited "an urgent need for further, stricter action" by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to halt blatant actions by city officials in Santa Monica, CA, to drive local businesses from Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO).
Bolen’s letter marks the most recent action NBAA has taken to preserve the historic Southern California airport’s important role in the nation’s aviation system. Earlier this year, NBAA joined with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) to file an FAA Part 16 complaint alleging that city officials have improperly diverted airport funds, charged excessive and unreasonable landing fees and denied leases on property to airport businesses.
For its part, the FAA issued a notice of investigation into the leasing and related issues last month, requiring the city to explain its rationale for attempts to evict two longstanding aviation service providers at SMO, Atlantic Aviation and American Flyers. The agency also subpoenaed city officials to appear in person to address the matter.
In addition to the notice of investigation and related legal proceedings, in August the FAA also reaffirmed the city's overall obligation, under terms of federal grant assurances, to keep the airport open through 2023. A separate case, now under deliberation, concerns whether Santa Monica is further required to operate SMO in perpetuity under terms of the 1948 Instrument of Transfer that gave control of the airfield back to the city after significant improvements made by the Army during World War II.
While welcoming the FAA’s recent moves to ensure the airport’s continued operation, Bolen’s letter urged the agency to step up its efforts to stop “the city’s ongoing, self-described ‘strangulation’ strategy for SMO.”
“The city has not stopped – and indeed, has accelerated – its efforts to restrict aeronautical uses of SMO," Bolen wrote in his Oct. 14 letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
“As the city continues to implement its strategy, there is a significant risk that if the FAA does not take immediate steps to ensure the future of SMO, any ultimate victory will be pyrrhic, because in the meantime, the city will succeed in withering away the services available at the airport, and along with them its aeronautical user base,” he concluded.
Just about 4 centuries ago John Donne declared that we do not live our lives separate from each other unencumbered by mutual ties and obligations, mutual benefits and protections. This has proved a difficult lesson, oft in need of repetition and as yet unlearned universally and the proof of this can easily be found.
We hear a lot these days about local control of our city’s destiny as reflected in the way in which the city government attempts to control and develop land within its borders. Local control, what could be wrong with that? Shouldn’t each sovereign city have complete and total control over its real estate to do with as its governors deem fit? Isn’t that what cityhood is all about-control of all things within the city borders?
While it makes sense that cities should have the final say on most things, there are many exceptions. Santa Monica, a bastion of renter’s rights is still subject to the rent laws laid down by the State of California. It gladly submits to the uniform fire and safety codes, and the national plumbing and electrical codes. Prominent exceptions to “local control” are the major transportation infrastructures that connect cities and states to the rest of the nation–the railroads, the waterways, our interstate highway system and, of course the national air transportation system.
Not all cities are fortunate enough to have a piece of even one of these assets, but our town, Santa Monica, has all of them: The Pacific ocean, the MetroRail, The Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway (Interstate route 10), and the 100 year old Municipal Airport-historical Clover Field. The City has little control over these assets although it is privileged to profit by them and they all make the city a better place to live and work. Somehow, big-time developers, and those in the City Government in their thrall, have gotten the absurd notion in their heads that the airport is somehow different and fair game for them to do with as their whimsy dictates.
We have seen attempts over the last half-century to wrest the airport land from control of the United States Government and repurpose it to gain a short term development windfall at the cost of being disconnected from the rest of the country by air forever. This is simply too high a price to pay. Why ruin an asset that pays its own way both in the City’s bottom line and in the prosperity it generates through the cornucopia of general aviation?
A much more enlightened approach would be to recognize the logical and legal limitations of local control and embrace the common sense for the common good approach of local participation in the national air transportation network. The insular approach taken by City Hall is shortsighted and self-defeating in the long run. As the nation continues to mature and expand into all the available land, we need to look ahead and preserve what we cannot replace.
There is breath-taking irony in a city that touts “sustainability” but continues to try to convert every square foot of its land into ever more grandiose development which has already made it nearly impossible to get around town to do one’s daily business. Closing the airport, as the City Council has recently voted unanimously to do, is the epitome of pig-headedness and, if it were to succeed, would make life for all of us worse, not better.
If the City’s elected representatives weren’t deafened by their own clamoring to close the airport and the siren call of developer money, they might hear a distant bell tolling to remind them that no city is an island entire of itself, but every city is a piece of the continent, a part of the American main.
That bell tolls for thee Santa Monica-pay heed lest you lose forever one of your birthrights. We nearly lost the pier once, don’t play the same fast and loose game with the airport. Do the right thing: Invest in it- it will make you proud.
In ancient times there was a three-headed dog, Cerberus, who guarded the gates to Hades. One of the twelve labors of Hercules was to capture this beast and sequester him. The beast has escaped time and again throughout history since, and currently, under the name Credulous, guards the Council Chambers at City Hall. His heads are: Noise, Pollution, and Safety, and from these rabid jaws the City Council would fain save us all.
Why would anyone want to keep such a noisy, barking dog? They don’t want to, of course, but they must. You see, without these three made up menaces, their efforts to close the airport would look like the insanity that it is.
The first head of Credulous, Noise, has a big bark, but no teeth. Our airport is one of the quietest general aviation airports in America. It has an extraordinary compliance rate with the rigorously enforced noise abatement rules and regulations. The noise footprint outside of the airport boundary is held at 65 dBls or lower. What few complaints that come in from the neighborhood are generated almost entirely by two households. Pilots using the airport are encouraged to choose flight paths that lessen the noise impact on the community. Santa Monica Airport is a good, quiet neighbor as can be clearly seen in the Airport’s monthly noise report to the Airport Commission.
The second head of Credulous is Pollution and has the foulest breath of the three. Acre by acre, Santa Monica Airport uses the least resources and produces the least waste of any city land. Studies by the Federal Government have found zero evidence of pollution at the airport as have city core drillings done just this year. Exhaust from cars and trucks are many orders of magnitude greater than anything the airport produces. Although there is lead in aviation fuel for piston aircraft, the EPA can find no elevated levels of it around the airport. This will become moot in a couple of years anyway when new reformulated fuels become available. There is no significant pollution problem at the airport.
The last head of Credulous is Safety-it is blind. This head yaps incessantly about safety in a city where no citizen has been injured or killed by aviation in the airport’s 100 year history. On the other hand, Santa Monica is the number one most dangerous city in California for pedestrians.
The City government spreads these falsehoods because they have, otherwise, no excuse for trying to close the airport and grab the land for development.
H.L. Mencken explained it all to us 94 years ago: “...the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be lead to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
Recall that another of Hercules twelve labors was to clean out the Augean stables. We believe that you cannot run a great airport in a dirty city so I guess we all know what lies ahead. Put on your hip-waders and roll up your sleeves!
An oft-repeated phrase in the media and elsewhere these days is that the City’s obligations to operate the our airport run “until at least 2023”. What is the real significance of this date to our airport? Does that phrase imply that the City can close the airport after 2023? No, it means no such thing.
When a city accepts federal funds to improve infrastructure, that money comes with obligations, as well it should. For aviation improvements those obligations run for the life of the improvement or twenty years, whichever comes first, starting from the time the money is spent. Santa Monica spent the last federal dollars on a blast fence at the eastern end of the runway in 2003, and since the expected lifetime of that structure is anticipated to be a half-century or more, the grant assurances pertinent to it, will run for twenty years until 2023.
What are those obligations? By in large, in the simplest terms, they require that the city run the airport in such a manner that the value of the grant money spent will not be wasted. The city must run the airport safely and treat its tenants fairly, and, of course it cannot seek to close the facility while grant assurances are in effect.
In our case, the Santa Monica Municipal Airport, this last proviso is moot since other obligations incurred by the City in 1948 and 1949 preclude the airport ever being closed unless the Federal Government, through the FAA, were to deem it no longer necessary or useful to America’s aviation infrastructure–an event unlikely in the extreme. Thus, our airport is more than amply protected by these older agreements.
The primary value of grant assurances, on the other hand, is that they clearly define obligations and provide a streamlined judicial process to settle disputes between the host municipality and the aviation community. In our case, preventing closure is not the primary advantage of the current grant assurances.
The ending of the grant assurances in 2023 has no bearing on the ability of the City to close this airport. The City of Santa Monica simply does not have the authority to do so. That power is reserved for the Federal Government.
Because the grant assurances are not the primary reason that the City cannot close the airport, there is no excuse, even amongst those shortsighted individuals who wish to see it closed and the land developed, not to take the money. There is no valid reason to eschew federal grant money that can improve our airport. The citizens should demand that the City Council apply for all the federal money they can get just as they did for the rebuilding of the incline and the metro-rail. It is irresponsible and wrongheaded not to do that when the money is there for the asking.
Farfetched? Not really, considering that they just voted to close the airport!
The City has absolutely no authority and no legal means to close the Santa Monica Municipal Airport. The City has binding agreements made in 1948 and later with the government of the United States to maintain and operate the airport as an airport forever.
The airport land, purchased in 1926 for an airport, like the land under the metro or the 10 freeway or PCH is not city property, free and clear, to do with as they wish or as the whim strikes them. Over the last half-century, the City has spent millions of taxpayer dollars on one magic potion after another trying to get control of the land, but swill as much of this expensive draught as the taxpayers are willing to stomach, the fact remains: The Federal Government says the airport must remain open and operating in perpetuity.
Government bodies, city councils included, can vote on anything they want. There is no limit no matter how foolish, or ignorant, or asinine those votes might be. The limit to their powers becomes apparent when they attempt to implement an ill-conceived, illegal, or idiotic vote.
The sooner the City accepts this simple fact and begins to avail itself to the cornucopia of federal funding available to improve operations at the airport, the better. The Municipal Airport is more than simply self-sustaining; it is an enormous economic engine for Santa Monica. It generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the city even as the city fathers treat it like a bastard child. Imagine what this airport could do with the unreserved and much deserved support of the City. The sky, no matter what color it may be, is the limit.
Santa Monica Airport Fixed Base Operator (FBO) Atlantic Aviation has filed a complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration in response to the actions taken by Santa Monica's elected officials. Click here to download the PDF of the Atlantic Aviation's Part 16 complaint.
Mark Twain is alleged to have once said:
"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”
This is just the problem with the folks that insist that Santa Monica Municipal Airport, historical Cloverfield, was supposed to be a park. The truth is that the land was purchased for the express purpose of having an airport for the city by using a parkland bond in the mid 1920’s.
People in and out of city government that tell us that the land beneath our airport was originally bought for a park are just plain wrong. It is parkland, but it was purchased for an airport.
When the city fathers decided that an airport was part of the path to Santa Monica’s future, they petitioned the state government in Sacramento to modify the parkland law to recognize aviation as a legitimate parkland use. Much to the short–sighted present day City Council's chagrin, that law, written nearly one hundred years ago at this city’s behest, is still the law of the land. In California a park can be used as an airport as long as an airport is needed. The land use is equivalent under the law.
Any change in this parkland status would require a 2/3 vote of registered voters, a difficult hurdle to clear indeed. Lesser votes like those in last November’s low turnout election can never supersede this requirement.
One of the things you will often hear the City Council allege, in fact Councilman Winterer did so on NPR just today (8/29/16,) is that the Fixed Base Operators on the north side of our Airport had a special arrangement enforced by the FAA that made the City lease to these FBO's at below market rates.
Well, as William Blake told us: “ A truth that's told with bad intent, beats all the lies you can invent” and so it is still.
When Douglas aircraft failed to reach an understanding with the City in the late 1970's and moved out, the City Council, as short-sighted then as it is today, decided that the time was ripe to grab the land and voted to close the airport. Accordingly, eviction notices we served on all the airport tenants in 1981. Those tenants fought back with the end result that Santa Monica had to settle the matter with now famous 1984 thirty year Airport Agreement with the FAA which made abundantly clear, among other things, that the Federal Government was the final arbiter in these airport matters.
Part of the plan set forth in that agreement was to build out the north side of the field, which Douglas left as bare unimproved earth with no plumbing or electrical service. To offset the cost of the new business buildings, hangars and, of course, the Museum of Flying, as is standard business practice, the land was leased at a reduced rate to allow the new tenants to amortize cost of their capital outlay over thirty years. Nothing special here-no sweetheart deals, nothing under the table, nothing unusual at all. Just normal business incentive.
There are, of course, sweetheart deals with land at the airport. That is true, but those are between the City and Santa Monica College as the City has freely admitted in recent court filings. That is, as they say, another kettle of ripening fish altogether.
Well folks it’s déjà vu all over again, or so it seems at the Santa Monica City Council with last Tuesday’s replay of their 1980 vote to close the Santa Monica Municipal Airport. That time it cost the City a 30 year contract with the Federal Government that only ran to term last year. Now, only a year later they are hell-bent-for-leather down the same road.
It appears that the Councilmen have imbibed their own kool-aid and are completely out of touch with the majority of their citizens as is plainly evident on the City’s own FB page. The unsavoriness of the present council is breathtaking. Two council members, one being the Mayor himself, Mr. Vasquez, and Councilman Winterer both with real estate investments right off the end of the airport runway introduced this malicious and ill-considered motion and then had the indecency to vote on it themselves having accepted the dubious benediction of the City Attorney Marsha Moutre.
This vote has formalized a conflict of interest for the City. Santa Monica has legal obligations under the authority of the FAA on how they must operate the airport. It is not theirs to do with as they please no matter how much they desire that. To take a formal position in opposition to established law is a costly fool’s errand. It is a waste of time and resources and will be fought tooth and nail by aviation interests here, and across the country.
What would this unabashed self-interest gain for us were it to prove successful? At the very least would be the permanent loss of one of the major assets in the city replacing its high income to cost ratio with another money losing park and lots more development. None of this will require citizen input thanks to last November’s Proposition LC (Lost Control) that disfranchised Santa Monica voters with regard to airport land use.
Our Municipal Airport is a unique asset. It brings in enormous revenue (it is one of the top 6 producers in the whole city) with only a fraction of the resources required of other high-producing land uses. Bringing in over a quarter of a billion dollars a year in direct benefits, our airport uses less water, less electricity, less manpower, is safer (virtually no crime, auto accidents or pedestrian injuries) and produces less waste and pollution than any other land in the city. It is, hands down, one of the best things in our town and a few narrow interests would gladly bury it for their own benefit. We could not let that happen in the past and we cannot let it happen now.
Yet, a few self-interested politicos would destroy it all for some short-term gain–or, as the venerable 'Breeches' Bible put it long ago, they would “trade their birthright (and ours too) for a mess of pottage.” And this would lead to a catastrophe of truly biblical proportions.
Our airport is a keystone in the foundation for Santa Monica’s future. Aviation will become even more crucial in the future than it has been in the past and what a past that has been considering that a big part of the victory in WWII was made right here with Douglas Aircraft that built the city we have today in the process. Close the airport now and we will never know the benefits denied to future generations. This proposal is arrogance beyond belief, but not unprecedented, in our elected at large city government.
The Council’s public stance with regard to the users and the businesses at the airport is nothing short of criminal–a total abnegation of their fiduciary responsibilities. Should they fail to wrest control of the land from the FAA, as they most certainly will, they have vowed to inflict as much damage as they can to the business community in their role as landlord (ironic considering the City’s attitude toward landlords, but then the shoe is on the other foot here). City fathers are supposed to insure the growth and viability of their businessmen and facilitate commerce not hamstring efforts to build and prosper in Santa Monica.
What is wrong with these people? Unbridled self-interest, that’s what! They want the dirt, pure and simple.
Folks who would like to see our airport close have been crowing of late about the supposed benefits they imagine they have gained by the passage of measure LC at the last election. They cite LC as “Local Control” and assert that it gives the citizens and the city government more control of land at the Municipal Airport. It does nothing of the kind.
LC would be better described as “Lost Control” since it specifically denies citizen voter input on the legal uses of land at the airport that are not used for aviation.
All of the land that comprises our airport is parkland under California law and may only be used for bonafide parkland uses. Due to an amendment to California State Law requested by the City of Santa Monica in the 1920’s, aviation is one of those uses. It states simply that a park may be used for an airport as long as an airport is needed. Aviation parkland, additionally, is subject to Federal Law.
Any land at the airport that is not used for aviation must still be used for parkland purposes and changing that requires a 2/3 vote of the registered voters-a difficult hurdle indeed.
LC conferred no rights upon the city government that it did not already have, it merely disfranchised the electorate with regard to future land use decisions at the airport within existing law. LC represents a net loss for participatory democracy.
The LC proponents would have us believe that a simple majority vote in a low voter turnout election can somehow overturn the statutory requirement of a 2/3 majority of all of the registered voters. t’ain’t so.