FAQ's: Regulating the Santa Monica Airport and Controlling Use of the Land

Why doesn't the City Close the Airport and use the land for a park or other recreational purpose?
To make a different use of the land, the City needs to first establish its legal right to control the land.  The City owns the land occupied by the Airport, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) controls aviation and aircraft operations.   The City believes that it has the legal right to control the use of the land occupied by the Airport.  The FAA and national aviation interests believe that it does not.  It will take a court decision or an act of Congress to resolve the dispute.  That litigation is under way, and the City is working with members of Congress.
The 1984 Settlement Agreement required the City to operate the Airport, but it has expired; so, why can't the City close the Airport now?
For many years community members, City officials and City staff believed that the City could close the Airport after the 1984 Settlement Agreement with the FAA expired.  In the past, the FAA even said that use of the Airport land would be a "local land use matter" after 2015, when the 1984 Agreement expired.  But, the FAA now claims that two legal documents continue to limit the City's rights:  the 1994 Grant Agreement with the federal government and the 1947 Instrument of Transfer.  The FAA, along with private aviation supporters and business interests, contend that the 1994 Grant requires the City to operate the Airport until 2023 and that the Instrument of Transfer gives the federal government the right to require that the land be used as an airport forever.  Both of those claims are being litigated now and will be resolved in court. 
Why Can't the City close the Airport now and litigate later?
The FAA will not let the City close the Airport now, while the disputes about the expiration of the grant conditions and the Instrument of Transfer are pending.  If the City tries to, the federal government will likely act to reduce or eliminate local control.  For instance, the FAA could seek, and would almost certainly obtain, an injunction preventing closure and possibly also limiting the City's ability to reduce impacts through lease provisions.  And, there are other more drastic actions that the FAA could take to reduce or even eliminate local control of the Airport and the land it occupies.
Hasn't the Council already decided to close the Airport?
No, the City Council has not decided to close the Airport.  Decades ago, before the 1984 Settlement Agreement, the then-seated City Council voted to close the Airport "when feasible".  That vote was replaced by the 1984 Agreement.  Last year, the voters adopted Measure LC (for local control).   It amended the City Charter to affirm local control, to allow the City Council to manage and to limit Airport uses, including to permit park and recreational facilities on Airport land, with uses beyond that being subject to a vote of the electorate, but Measure LC did not require closure of the Airport.    If the Council were to vote, as a body, to close the Airport, that vote would almost certainly provoke more litigation brought by the FAA, aviation interests or both.  They would commence that litigation in the forum most favorable to their interests.
If the Grant Agreement and/or Instrument of Transfer prevent closing the Airport, at least for now, what would it take to finally close it?
It would take a final court decision or an act of Congress. 
If the City can't close the whole Airport, can it close the part that is on the "Western Parcel"?
That is a possibility for the future. The western portion of the Airport was acquired for the City, using City funds, during World War II.  That land is not covered by the Instrument of Transfer; it is only covered by the grant agreement. As already mentioned, there is a dispute about whether the grant obligations expired in 2014 or whether they run until 2023.  Whatever the expiration date, once the 1994 Grant Agreement has expired, the City will not be obligated to the federal government to keep that land in Airport use.  If the Western Parcel were removed from Airport use, the runway would be much shorter.  That would prevent access by some aircraft that now use the Airport. 
Why doesn't the City ban jets to make the Airport safer and quieter and to reduce air pollution?
The City has tried to ban jets twice.  Decades ago, the City Council adopted an ordinance banning jets in order to reduce noise impacts.  However, a federal court struck down that early jet ban because some jets are quieter than some propeller aircraft.  Much more recently, the City Council banned larger and faster jets that are not designed for the Airport's relatively short runway.  That ordinance was also struck down.  In that case, the FAA initiated an administrative proceeding and decided that the ordinance violated a grant condition because it constituted "unjust discrimination" against some aircraft.   The City appealed, and a federal court upheld the FAA's decision.  So, at the moment and before the Grant Agreement and Instrument of Transfer disputes are resolved, it is very unlikely that the City can reduce adverse impacts by adopting a law that bans some or all jets. 
Can't the City adopt an ordinance with stronger noise limits?
The City's authority to regulate aircraft noise is limited by a federal law known as ANCA (Aircraft Noise & Capacity Act).   However, once the grant conditions have expired (as the City claims they already have), ANCA may not apply.  Meanwhile, it may be possible to reduce noise impacts can be reduced through lease conditions.
What about regulating emissions?
Federal law preempts the City from regulating aircraft engines and emissions.  The Environmental Protection Agency has exclusive authority to act, in co-ordination with the FAA, to regulate aircraft engine emissions.  Many communities have urged the EPA to adopt lower emissions limits, based on current scientific information.  So far, the EPA has responded very slowly to this threat to public health and the environment.   Only Congress can compel the EPA to adopt more protective emissions limitations or change the law that gives the EPA exclusive authority.  However, as lessor and proprietor of the Airport, the City can impose lease conditions that should help reduce lead and other emissions.
Are Santa Monica residents and other taxpayers paying the cost of operating the Airport?
Not now.  The costs of operating the Airport are currently covered by landing fees and lease revenues.  In the past, the City's General Fund loaned money to the Airport Fund.  That debt is being paid down.  Meanwhile, when the Airport leases expired earlier this year, rents were increased.  So, the debt will continue to be paid down.
It's the City's Airport, so why doesn't City staff stop being afraid of the FAA and take bolder action, like bulldozing the runway, shutting down the Western Parcel, or eliminating all aviation services?
The City Council's decisions and City staff's work on the Airport are not driven by fear of the FAA or fear of additional litigation. Council and staff simply believe that the disputes with the FAA and aviation interests must be conducted rationally and strategically in order to maximize the chances of success in establishing full control of the Airport land.  Rash actions of doubtful legality could give the FAA an advantage or even provoke federal actions that would reduce or even eliminate local control.