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City Council Report

 

City Council Meeting:  May 8, 2012

Agenda Item:  4–A  

To:               Mayor and City Council 

From:           Martin Pastucha, Director of Public Works

                    Marsha Jones Moutrie, City Attorney

Subject:        Santa Monica Airport Campus Phase II Public Process Findings

 

Recommended Action

Staff recommends that the City Council:

  1. Review and comment on the results of the Santa Monica Airport Campus Phase II Public Process;
  2. Provide guidance to staff on Phase III; and
  3. Direct staff to proceed with the Airport visioning process, including guidance on the Airport Commission conducting two workshops during Phase III.

 

Executive Summary

Phase II of the Santa Monica Airport visioning process involved one of the largest community discussion processes ever conducted by the City of Santa Monica (City).  Over 300 community members and stakeholders participated in facilitated, small-group discussions; and the City’s consultant has submitted both the raw data gathered through that process and its report summarizing community input, emergent themes, preferences and suggestions for the Airport’s future.  Based on that body of information, staff is requesting that Council provide guidance on the assessments to be undertaken in the third phase and direct staff to proceed with the visioning process.

 

Background

The City owns and operates Santa Monica Airport (SMO), one of the oldest and busiest General Aviation airports in the country.  SMO is located on 227 acres of prime land, bordered on three sides by busy arterial streets and residential neighborhoods, two of which are in the City of Los Angeles.  The Airport Campus, which is shown on Attachment “A”, consists of 187 acres of land reserved and used for aviation activities and 40 acres that are allowed to be, and actually are used for other purposes, which are not inconsistent with airport activities.  These non-aviation uses include park space, educational facilities, and art studios, among other things.

 

Though the City owns and operates the Airport, aviation activities are governed by federal law and heavily regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with which the City has had a number of controversies since the advent of private jet aircraft almost fifty years ago.

 

At present, the City and the FAA have an agreement (the 1984 Settlement Agreement), which expressly obligates the City to operate the Airport until 2015, when that agreement will expire by its own terms.  The City and FAA also have other contractual agreements.  These include grant agreements that impose conditions of Airport operation upon the City.  The last of these will expire in 2014, according to the City, and in 2023, according to the FAA.  Additionally, one of two post World War II instruments transfers land from the federal government to the City and purports to subject the City to conditions, including operating the Airport in perpetuity.  Finally, the City has various contractual agreements with Airport lessees, and these leases all expire by 2015.

 

In anticipation of the opportunities that the City believes are attendant upon the expiration of most of these agreements and of the obligations they embody, the City undertook a comprehensive, public visioning process regarding the future of the Airport.  The visioning process is intended to engage community members and other stakeholders in an in-depth, public discussion of the possibilities for the Airport’s future.  In the past, that discussion has been limited to a controversy about whether the Airport should (or must) be maintained as it is, or whether the City should attempt, unilaterally, to close it – an endeavor that would inevitably involve litigation against the FAA, which contends that the City must continue to operate the Airport.  Among other things, the visioning process is intended to identify and assess the options between these two extremes.

 

The Visioning Process began with Council authorizing professional service contracts with consultants to assist with Phase I.  It consisted of three parts: (1) a survey by the Rand Corporation of concepts for uses that could be located on the non-aviation land and could enhance the Airport’s value to the community; (2) an initial sampling of interviews by Point C Partners to identify viewpoints about the Airport and possibilities for its future to be used in developing a model for the Phase II public process; and (3) a limited analysis by HR&A Advisors of the economic and fiscal impacts of the Airport’s current operations.  Additionally, Phase I included the development of a format for Phase II, which was intended to ensure that all interested members of the public would have an adequate opportunity to express their views and discuss them with others.  On October 4, 2011, staff reported to Council on Phase I, and Council gave direction to proceed with Phase II. 

 

On December 6, 2011, Council approved a professional services contract with Moore Iacofano Goltsman, Inc. (MIG) to facilitate thirty community discussion groups and provide both a report and raw data to the City and on December 10, 2011, Phase II was launched with an open house at the Airport.  The purpose of these discussions was to provide a forum in which community members and all other interested persons could share their views, to build a record, and to gather views and ideas to aid in the formulation of themes for strategic analysis in Phase III. 

 

Groups were conducted on various days of the week and at several locations in order to ensure that anyone who wanted to participate could do so.  In total, there were 312 participants in 32 group discussions.  Sixty-six percent of the participants were Santa Monica residents; thirty-one percent were Los Angeles residents; and three percent resided in other areas such as Malibu, Gardena, and Thousand Oaks.  The distribution of participants’ residences is shown on the following map. 

 

 

Each group consisted of about 8 to 12 members of the public.  This small size maximized participants’ opportunity to freely and comfortably share and discuss their concerns, frustrations, and hopes for the Airport. 

 

All participants' comments and ideas were documented.  The source documents include the wall graphics, detailed minutes taken by City staff, and participants’ comment cards from each session.  The input from the participants and each focus group is included in MIG’s Summary of Phase II Community Discussion Groups report, which is Attachment “B”.  The body of MIG’s report outlines the thematic outcomes and community preferences that emerged in the groups. 

 

This staff report summarizes the community input obtained through MIG's work, provides information about steps the City is currently taking to address community concerns about adverse Airport impacts and other steps the City might or might not be able to take, and seeks Council approval and direction on proposals for Phase III.

 

Discussion

Participants' Basic Opinions about the Airport and Its Future

As anticipated, the participants in the Phase II discussion groups were sharply divided in their viewpoints about the Airport’s future.  Most participants live near the Airport.  And, many of them favored airport closure.  Others, including a number of City residents, thought the City should continue to operate the Airport, preferably with improvements.  The vast majority understood that the breadth of federal authority curtails the City's choices; and they willingly discussed their specific concerns about current operations and their preferences as to future Airport operations. 

 

The MIG Report organizes participants' underlying views on the Airport into five general positions and describes each.  In summary, one group unequivocally expressed the view that the Airport should be closed because the detrimental impacts of emissions on health and noise upon quality of life, as well as safety risks, outweigh any potential benefits.  Proponents of this view identified various possibilities for repurposing the Airport land.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, some participants preferred to maintain the status quo because the Airport is one of the safest and best general aviation airports in California and serves as an important regional resource.  Moreover, advances in jet aircraft design and improved fuels will reduce noise and emissions in the coming years and thereby reduce corresponding impacts. 

 

Between these two extremes, the MIG Report describes three positions, each assuming that the Airport may remain open (either by choice or compulsion) and describing conditions that should be attached to its continued operation.  In brief summary, one group urged that the City should try to close the Airport unless a firm agreement is reached with the FAA that guarantees operational changes sufficient to significantly mitigate adverse Airport impacts on surrounding neighborhoods.  MIG describes a second group as arguing that the Airport should only remain open if operations and the airport “footprint” are significantly reduced.  This group felt that the Airport has outgrown the City in its residential setting and should be closed unless it can somehow become more compatible with its surroundings and City values.  Lastly, MIG describes a third group, which perceives the Airport as a valuable resource that should be preserved if the City is able to implement various mitigation measures sufficient to reduce impacts.  This group considered pursuing closure as impractical for three reasons: the potential legal battle with the FAA; the fact that any subsequent repurposing of the Airport campus would greatly exacerbate traffic problems; and the concern that closure of the Airport would allow flights incoming to Los Angeles International Airport to overfly Santa Monica at lower altitudes.

 

Perspectives on Airport Operations and Issues Identified by Participants

After soliciting participants’ general opinions about the Airport, MIG sought and obtained their specific views and concerns about the Airport and its current operations. The comments about Airport operations are detailed in the MIG report and the appendices to the report, which provide a wealth of data for community and Council consideration and an excellent record to support future City actions.

 

The MIG report puts these comments about the Airport and operations into two groups: comments about negative impacts; and comments about the positive contributions that the Airport makes to the community and region.

 

In very brief summary, most negative comments were about:

·       Noise pollution, particularly noise pollution by jets and flight school operations;

·       Health impacts of aircraft emissions;

·       Safety risks related to flight training and proximity of homes and a gas station;

·       Adverse impacts inconsistent with the City's environmental policies;

·       A perceived growth of Airport operations;

·       Damage to residents' life quality and property values without proportionate benefit; and

·       Lack of local control and leadership with a corresponding sense of disenfranchisement.

 

Also in brief summary, the positive comments about the Airport included that it:

·       Contributes to the local economy, partly by attracting desirable businesses;

·       Represents the history of both aviation and the City;

·       Plays a critical role in emergency preparedness and certain medical services;

·       Serves as a reliever airport and vital link in the regional transportation system;

·       Provides training and educational opportunities related to aviation;

·       Provides recreational opportunities and a home for the cultural and arts community; and

·       Is a low-density use in a time of rapid development.

 

Key Themes and Community Preferences for the Future

MIG identifies key themes that emerged from the group discussions, with three being predominant.  First, residents repeatedly urged that the City's Airport must be operated in a manner consistent with the City's core values of environmental stewardship and sustainability.  Second, a large number of participants protested that the current operation of the Airport is unfair because it benefits a few to the detriment of many.  Third, residents demanded that the City government must "stand with the residents" and fight, if necessary, to protect their interests and quality of life.  However, even as they expressed themselves along these thematic lines, most participants also expressed understanding that broad federal legal authority greatly restricts local control. Nonetheless, most participants clearly and understandably expect the City to actively protect their quality of life and interests in any way possible.  To that end, virtually all participants, even those most adamant about Airport closure, willingly expressed preferences as to what should be done or attempted as to Airport operations.

 

Participants' preferences are summarized in detail in the MIG report and are summarized here in lists organized into the thematic preferences identified in the report.  For brevity's sake some of the categories have been consolidated in this report.  Again, staff urges Council and community members to read the report and review the raw data as this summary is offered only for convenience and unfortunately cannot fully convey the full range and depth of participants' input.  With that said, the main thematic preferences were as outlined below.

 

1.     The Airport must be aligned with the City's core, environmental values.

·       The "greening” process should begin with an environmental assessment or impact review.

·       Less toxic, green fuels should be required to reduce health risks.

·       Auxiliary ground power units should be installed to reduce noise and emissions during start up and while awaiting take-off clearance.

·       A mid-field run-up area should be created to allow pilots to queue for takeoff and check diagnostics in a contained noise area farther from homes.

·       Noise abatement technology, such as aircraft hush kits, should be required.

·       Environmental best practices should apply to all Airport activities, including building, recycling, motor vehicle operations, etc.

 

2.     The Airport must be transformed into a better neighbor by reducing noise and enhancing safety.

·       Best practices at other General Aviation airports should be reviewed to make sure everything possible is done to make SMO a better neighbor through voluntary measures, such as the Fly Neighborly program, and through enforcement of legal restrictions on aircraft operations.

·       Hours of operations should be reduced.

·       Jets should be banned, either directly or by shortening the runway.

·       Landing fees and fines should be raised.

·       Flight school operations should be banned or reduced, or schools should be subsidized to move operations to other airports where patterned operations are less dangerous and detrimental.

·       Aircraft performance standards should be adopted to reduce noise and emissions.

·       Development of non-aviation land should be limited to protect quality of life and prevent increased traffic.

 

3.     Airport infrastructure and design should be improved to protect safety and enhance neighbors’ quality of life and afford greater amenities to surrounding communities.

·       Safety risks should be addressed by improving navigational aids with Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and runway safety (e.g., Engineered Material Arresting System-EMAS).

·       The blast wall should be expanded and additional protection measures (e.g., sound walls or buffer zones) should be considered to protect adjacent neighborhoods.

·       Recreational uses and facilities should be expanded, educational facilities should be expanded, and light retail should be added.

·       Infrastructure, grounds, and facilities should be upgraded to improve aesthetics of the Airport campus to be more consistent with City standards.

·       Security measures should be improved.

·       Access for pedestrians and cyclists should be improved and mass transit connections should be upgraded.

 

4.     Community trust must be restored through increased transparency, better communications, more sharing of information, and unbiased analysis.

·       The economic impacts of various alternatives should be analyzed, and the analysis must be unbiased.

·       Statistical information about the Airport operations and noise should be accurate, unbiased and readily available to the public.

·       Communications between the City and residents about the Airport must be improved.

·       A permanent Airport ombudsperson position should be created to address residents' concerns.

 

Preliminary Responses to Community Views and Preferences

Staff has carefully reviewed and considered the input collected from Phase II and has some initial information and feedback to offer for Council and community consideration. 

 

First, a number of the suggestions offered in the discussion groups are already being implemented or are being evaluated.  For example, staff shares the belief expressed by so many community members that the Airport (like all City operations) should reflect community values, particularly the core value of sustainability.  Thus, the Environmental Programs Manager has joined the team of City staff members working on the Airport.  Staff has already initiated work on the possibility of implementing some sustainability initiatives outlined in the Phase III process of this report.

 

Likewise, staff agrees that the Airport must be transformed into a better neighbor and has been working to that end in various ways.  For example, staff has negotiated a voluntary reduction in weekend flight training hours with the flight schools based at the Airport.  Staff has designed a possible plan for subsidizing the relocation of some flight training in order to reduce patterned operations over dense residential neighborhoods. 

 

Also, staff agrees that a variety of infrastructure improvements should be considered.  Of course, those would be subject to funding availability and Council approval.  But, the possibilities noted by Phase II participants should be explored and publicly addressed.

 

And, as to improving communications and increasing transparency, staff strongly supports these goals, has already undertaken a number of steps, and looks forward to doing more.  Initial steps in this area included assigning Airport operations to the Public Works Department in order to increase both support and oversight by better integrating Airport staff into the organizational structure.  Since that reorganization, efforts have also been made to better accumulate and share information about operations and noise.  Also, more information is now available on the City's website, including information about the Airport's history and the legal constraints arising from the federal governments control over aviation.  Other information now on the website is from WebTrak providing real-time flight data as well as Landing Fee Program data that consists of dates, times, and aircraft identification numbers.  And, senior staff has met, repeatedly, with community groups and members, other elected officials and their staff, representatives of aviation groups, Airport business owners, and representatives of various groups within the FAA to hear concerns and seek solutions.  Moreover, Phase II of the Visioning Process was intended and specifically designed for the purpose of obtaining as much community input as possible. 

 

To continue dialogue between interested participants that began with the Phase II discussion groups regarding the future of Santa Monica Airport, staff supports the concept of holding two workshops where progress on the Phase III efforts can be provided.  These workshops could be held during Airport Commission meetings and would be conducted within the Phase III process to provide updates on the work of Phase III as well as continue to garner ideas and input from the community throughout the next phase of the visioning process.  If the Council supports this proposal, timing of these workshops would be coordinated between staff and the Commission to maximize community input.  Staff also proposes to continue efforts initiated in coordination with the Airport Commission to provide more information requested by the community, including more information about flight operations, about what has been done at other airports, and about constraints as well as options.

 

As to the biggest and most difficult question: whether the City can or should close the Airport, there is much more to be seen and said.  As explained at the Council meeting last September, although the City owns and operates the Airport, its operations are governed by federal law and (most important for the closure question) the City has various contractual obligations to the federal government.  These include obligations to operate the Airport that arise or may arise from the 1984 Agreement, grant agreements, and the post-War transfers of Airport land from the federal government to the City. 

 

The 1984 Agreement expires in 2015.  To recap, the City claims that the last of the grant agreements expires in 2014, but the FAA contends that the last grant agreement does not expire until 2023.  And, in any event the FAA claims that the City is obligated to operate the Airport in perpetuity by the post-War transfers.  These two disputes (when the grant agreements finally expire and whether the post War transfers require Airport operation in perpetuity) have not been previously litigated.  The City Council resolved in 1981 to close the Airport when possible.  However, the question of when that might be possible was not decided because the City negotiated the 1984 Settlement Agreement with the FAA.  It embodied compromises that bought a negotiated peace for many years by obligating the City to operate the Airport until 2015 and by imposing limitations on flight operations much more favorable to the surrounding community than are available under current law.  Thus, as explained last fall, there is significant legal uncertainty as to whether and when the City could close the Airport.  All that is certain is that an attempt to do so will spawn costly litigation of uncertain duration and result in the federal government and the aviation industry strenuously opposing closure efforts.

 

Much more is certain about the legality of restricting Airport operations.  The City adopted a number of ordinances in the late 1970's to restrict operations in order to mitigate impacts on surrounding neighborhoods.  Five of the ordinances were challenged in federal court.  Four were upheld.  But, a fifth ordinance, banning jets in order to reduce noise, was invalidated based on the reality that some jets are quieter than some piston aircraft.  Thus, the court upheld a decibel limit but invalidated the jet ban.  Much more recently, the City attempted to ban Class C & D aircraft (which are jets) in order to protect safety by reducing the likelihood of excursions from the Airport runway, which is shorter than current design standards require for C & D aircraft.  The FAA challenged the ban and their administrative actions to strike down the ban were upheld by both the Ninth and the D.C. Circuit Courts of Appeal.  This experience shows that federal law will not be interpreted by the FAA or by the courts to allow the City to ban jets based on concerns relating to noise or runway safety.  It also demonstrates the federal government's tenacity in opposing access restrictions and the deference that the FAA is afforded in federal court. 

 

Given these realities, City staff has devoted considerable time and resources to ascertain whether any prospects exist for obtaining a voluntary agreement with the FAA or voluntary agreements with flight schools and pilot groups.  A closure fight would certainly consume very significant time and resources.  However, this will not be a major consideration to either the federal government or the aviation industry, which would likely participate in opposition to the City.  More important to all parties is the reality that the results of litigation are never certain.  And, this is particularly acute in cases that are legally and factually unusual – as this one would be.  In such a situation, where uncertainties loom large, it may be possible to reach a compromise in order to obtain certainty and a mutually acceptable (if less than perfect) resolution or at least an extended period of peace.

 

In City staff's meetings with local and national representatives of the aviation community and with representatives of the FAA, both groups have indicated flexibility and some willingness to consider alternatives.  Thus, the FAA has agreed to provide informal feedback on solutions proposed by the City, particularly if they have been successfully utilized elsewhere.  And the FAA has indicated that it will promptly consider, and is not inclined to oppose, even novel voluntary measures that would reduce impacts (such as measures that would reduce local flight school operations by relocating them) so long as those measures respect federal law.

 

Staff's overall goal in this effort has been to ascertain the full extent of any improvements in the Airport and its operations and impacts that could be made unilaterally or collectively but without litigation.  Once that is known, the Council will be situated to fully understand and assess the City’s options.  Meanwhile, staff believes that there is more to be learned about alternatives for reducing adverse Airport impacts and improving its contributions to neighbors, the City and surrounding communities.

 

Recommendations for Phase III

Based upon the information received through the Visioning Process to date, staff recommends that Council direct staff to pursue the following initiatives in Phase III.

 

1.     Address concerns about transparency, communications and trust by:

(a)       Continuing the community dialogue as expressed in Phase II, by continuing periodic updates to the Airport Commission and having two workshops during Phase III that could potentially be held at Airport Commission meetings;

(b)       Expanding the effort between staff and the Airport Commission to provide more information requested by the community, including more information about flight operations including a means of counting repetitive operations, about what has been done at other airports, about what data the FAA provides that would be updated on the Airport website monthly; and

(c)       Continuing other ongoing efforts to make information about Airport operations more trustworthy and available such as updating the website and hosting seminars.

 

2.     Prepare more detailed assessments of the possibilities for transforming SMO into a model, "Green" Airport by:

(a)       Developing a Sustainable Transportation Incubator;

(b)       Updating the Airport Sustainability Plan; and

(c)       Formulating a specific proposal for an emission reduction program to include, at minimum, ground power units to reduce the impacts of noise and emissions upon Airport neighbors from existing diesel fueled mobile auxiliary power units (Working with a Fixed Based Operator (FBO), a South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) grant application is being pursued to aid this effort), a mid-field run up area reducing idling time, a strategy for providing alternative fueling stations including electric charging stations for aircraft and dispensing aviation biofuel, and a legislative team to support the elimination of low-lead, propeller plane fuel an effort that will be moved forward by the City co-hosting a seminar about the future of leaded aviation gasoline on June 30, 2012 with the Museum of Flying, and finally, partnering with the Airport Cooperative Research Program and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a “Qualifying Aircraft Lead Emissions at Airports” study that will start this summer.

 

3.     Evaluate the potential for making the Airport a better neighbor and contributing a greater community benefit by:

(a)       Identifying best practices at other general aviation airports;

(b)       Conducting a fee study;

(c)       Reducing flight school operations through subsidies by moving a portion of their operations to airports better suited to accommodate patterned flying; and

(d)       Making improvements on aviation land, including, among other things, improvements to the blast wall, improving navigational aids with Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation, and runway safety (e.g., Engineered Material Arresting System-EMAS).

 

4.     Evaluate possible design improvements for non-aviation land by:

(a)       Evaluating mixed-use options such as expanding or enhancing outdoor recreational space and facilities, light retail, arts and education facilities; and

(b)       Incorporating improvements to bicycle, pedestrian and mass-transit access.

 

5.     Continue on-going dialogue with the FAA to assess possibilities for reducing adverse impacts of Airport operations sufficiently to make voluntary resolutions a viable alternative to a legal battle over airport closure.

 

Some of these activities would require assistance from consultants, and staff would bring proposed contracts for their services to Council with the goal of concluding Phase III and reporting back to Council in early 2013.

 

Financial Impacts & Budget Actions

There is no immediate budgetary or financial impact.  Funds in the amount of $300,000 will be included in the FY 2012-13 proposed budget.  If Council directs staff to move ahead with Phase III, staff will return this summer with recommendations to enter into agreements for necessary and appropriate consulting services.

 

Prepared by:     Marsha Jones Moutrie, City Attorney

                         Susan Cline, Assistant Director of Public Works

 

Approved:

 

Forwarded to Council:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Martin Pastucha

Director of Public Works

 

Rod Gould

City Manager

 

 

Approved:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marsha Jones Moutrie

City Attorney

 

 

 

Attachments:     A – Airport Campus Map

                         B – Summary of Phase II Community Discussion Groups Report