Information About Legal Disputes and Laws Related to the Airport

The City receives many questions about local control of the Santa Monica Airport and future use of the land it occupies.  This information responds to some of those questions with the basics of the Airport's history as it relates to the current legal disputes about control of the land. 

The City owns the land occupied by the Airport, having purchased much of the eastern portion of today's Airport land before World War II.  During that war, the City leased the Airport property to the federal government to support the war effort.  During the war, the Airport was expanded to include the land is known as the Western Parcel.  Like the rest of the Airport, that land is owned by the City.

After the war, the federal government surrendered its leasehold interest in the eastern portion of the Airport using a form Instrument of Transfer, which declared that the federal government no longer needed the land, returned it to the City, and also transferred various improvements.  That document includes a "reverter" clause.  It states that rights transferred by the instrument could only be used for Airport purposes and would otherwise revert to the federal government.  The Instrument of Transfer did not cover the Western Parcel, which was not part of the original war-time leases.    

After the war, the City accepted a series of federal grants to fund Airport improvements.   In exchange for each grant, the City promised to maintain the Airport facilities for 20 years.  The last grant was accepted in 1994; that grant was amended in 2003 solely for the purpose of reflecting the actual amount expended on the Airport improvements as of 2003 and, consequently, the actual amount funded by the 1994 grant. 

Today, the federal government claims that the Instrument of Transfer obligates the City to use the land as an airport forever.  And, if the City attempts to change its use, the land will "revert" to the federal government.  Aviation interests also claim that the City's grant obligations to continue operating the Airport do not expire until 2023 - twenty years after the City accepted the last payment on the 1994 grant.  The City vigorously opposes both of these claims. 

The City has hired expert, outside legal counsel and filed a federal law suit against the FAA to establish its right to control the future use of its land now occupied by the Airport.  In that litigation, the City is arguing that the Instrument of Transfer could not possibly have given the federal government a right to control the land forever, because the federal government was merely a war-time tenant. 

Aviation interests have filed an administrative complaint with the FAA seeking a ruling that the grant obligations do not expire until 2023.  In that litigation, the City is arguing that the supplementary payment made in 2003, was not a separate grant and did not restart the City's twenty year obligations.   

In addition to these alleged contractual limitations on the City's control of the Airport and Airport land, there are federal laws that limit the City's ability to control Airport impacts.  For example, the Airport Noise Capacity Act limits the City's ability to regulate noise; and the Clean Air Act preempts the City from regulating aircraft engines and emissions.