Can This Airport Be Saved?

The fight over one of the nation’s busiest single-runway general aviation airports

A classic Stearman flying above Santa Monica Airport. (George Kounis)
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Ted Lieu’s constituency includes neighborhoods around Santa Monica airport. “If only I had 20/20 vision,” he says, “I’d have been an Air Force pilot.” As a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves, Lieu still has aviation cred. “I love airplanes,” he maintains. “I support general aviation. I support community airports. I just don’t support them when they’re in the wrong location.” Today’s Santa Monica is no longer the place for an airport, Lieu believes.

“In my opinion, the FAA doesn’t care at all about the residents surrounding Santa Monica Airport,” Lieu tells me. “The FAA’s primary mission is to keep as many airports open as possible and as many planes in the air as possible.” In his role as chair of the state senate’s air quality committee, Lieu has heard hours of testimony from neighbors concerned about SMO. He doesn’t soft-peddle his own opinion about what should happen in 2015: “I strongly believe the city of Santa Monica should not renew the lease for that airport. It’s the city’s land, and the FAA can’t force them to do something with it they don’t want to.”

As a former prosecutor in the Judge Advocate General Corps, Lieu probably knows that’s a long way from a slam-dunk. What muddles SMO’s future is a tangled web of agreements undertaken with the federal government from World War II on—some in jittery, old-typewriter font, signed by long-dead officials. Airport turf is divided into three parcels, each controlled by one or more agreements between the city and the FAA. Taken literally, the 1948 Instrument of Transfer requires the city to operate a 3,000-foot runway indefinitely—or let the federal government do so. Since the present runway totals 5,000 feet, it’s the westernmost 2,000 feet that’s in the most immediate limbo, along with the support facilities alongside it. But that span spells the difference between a jet-worthy runway and one accommodating only small prop planes. Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie believes the city could amputate that end of the runway at will, since it’s not among the issues included in the Instrument of Transfer that expires in July 2015. She also expects any city attempt to do so will “likely provoke a complaint by the FAA and the aviation community,” leading to yet another legal skirmish with the agency. Despite the recent bruising it took in federal court, on March 25 the Santa Monica city council voted 6 to 0 to support an Airport Concept Plan for SMO downsizing, including closure of the western span of runway and termination of leases to flight schools occupying adjacent land. Or not. Lawyers for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the National Business Aviation Association dispute point by point Santa Monica’s assertions, emphasizing among many other issues that the city’s acceptance of federal improvement funds in 2003 legally compels it to continue operating all 5,000 feet of runway and associated services until at least 2023. Where the federal government will come down on these issues remains unknown, and the FAA’s silence has only fueled speculation.

Unseen others may have designs on what would be L.A.’s last large piece of prime real estate. “The dirt here is very valuable,” Bill Worden says one Saturday afternoon in the clamor of the airport’s Spitfire Grill. “People are scheming on it all the time.” Worden’s a pilot and Venice, California native who grew up close enough to watch takeoffs and landings from backyard trees he climbed. He cofounded the SMO Angel Flight chapter once headed Air Care Alliance, an umbrella group representing organizations that make charity medical flights. He’s also the head of the airport’s local advocacy organization.

Worden says he has a reality check for local activists penciling in hiking trails where hangars now stand: Vacated airport real estate worth billions will not be converted to pristine parkland that generates zero tax revenue. “There’s any number of development interests that would like to build in this part of the world, but they’re not going to tell us about it,” he says. “We have hearsay information from a couple of conversations that the city already has a plan for some of the residual land, but nobody will admit to it. It’s speculation, I have nothing hard. But I guarantee something’s there.”

The artificial ceiling imposed for safety reasons by the FAA prohibits tall buildings anywhere near the airport, a restriction that, if lifted, would likely result in more road traffic and consequent congestion and pollution. Indeed, the question of what might replace the airport has some neighbors uneasy. “The only thing that draws more complaints here in Sunset Park than the airport is the idea of increasing traffic,” says Cathy Larson. “A lot of people have voiced that they do not want big development to come into this area.”

“What we’re trying to get across to these people,” Worden says, “is that if this airport closes, they are not going to get Sequoia or the world’s largest dog park in its place. They’re going to get Century City and everything that goes with it—whether they want it or not.”

As for the status quo, only a lawyer could love it. Last October, a federal judge dismissed a sweeping lawsuit Santa Monica had filed against the FAA to conclusively establish that the city controlled airport land. City Attorney Marsha Moutrie delivered a prognosis to the city council that downsized visions of airport tarmac being supplanted by flora, fauna, or mixed-use real estate development: “It is now clear that legal disputes about the city’s authority to close the airport will inevitably extend well beyond 2015, and their outcome is uncertain.” After tallying up litigation that could potentially stretch more than a decade, Moutrie listed the virtues of incremental measures to reduce airport size, versus yet another round with the FAA. In June, a petition sponsored by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the National Business Aviation Association, and the Santa Monica Airport Association easily gathered enough local signatures to qualify a ballot measure for the November election that would require voter approval for any changes to land use at SMO. Says a spokesman for the measure, “Voters will resolve one simple question: Should Santa Monica voters be asked for their approval before politicians, developers, and special interests can convert 227 acres of low-density airport land for their own purposes?”

On a bright Sunday morning at SMO, the argument seems as distant as Catalina Island, mounted like a gem in its blue setting to the south. Parents and kids point and grin from the observation deck as a Cessna 172 settles in from the east and putters toward the flight school hangars. Across the runway, anonymous jets slumber, awaiting passengers who probably don’t live in Sunset Park or North Westdale—where their takeoff will likely be hard to miss. And somewhere in Mar Vista, Martin Rubin tracks airport operations on the PublicVue website, poised to file an e-complaint against the next noise violator.

Meanwhile, in the shade of a DC-3 displayed near the airport entrance, immortalized in bronze, Donald Douglas and his dog Wunderbar watch and wait.