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"Opinion: The saga of Santa Monica Airport"

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Our Town: The saga of Santa Monica Airport
By Zina Josephs
The Santa Monica (CA) Daily Press

On Oct. 31, City Hall filed a complaint against the Federal Aviation
Administration in federal court to establish the city's right to control the
future use of Santa Monica Airport (SMO) property. If City Hall wins,
subsequent land use decisions will have a tremendous impact on residents in
both Santa Monica and Los Angeles.

Mayor Pam O'Connor told KPCC on Nov. 6 that "the status quo will not be
tolerated." A local newspaper quoted Assemblyman Richard Bloom as saying, "I
support the process and the litigation that the city has undertaken to test
its jurisdiction." State Sen. Ted Lieu posted on his website, "I commend the
city of Santa Monica for filing suit against the FAA."

L.A. Councilman Mike Bonin, whose district includes neighborhoods under the
SMO flight paths, posted on his Facebook page, "It's time to shut this
airport down." And a photo in another local newspaper showed Bonin's
predecessor, Bill Rosendahl, at a 2012 rally holding a sign that said "Close
SMO for good."

Meanwhile, an Oct. 31 website posting by the Aircraft Owners & Pilots
Association (AOPA, with 385,000 members worldwide) claimed that the lawsuit
"lacks any merit in law and is another desperate bid by the city to close
Santa Monica Airport."

A commenter on the AOPA site used the massive Playa Vista development
(estimated to generate 44,000 new daily car trips) replacing the Hughes
Aircraft Company's 9,000-foot runway as a cautionary tale.

The city's 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) update devoted only
three pages to SMO and the adjacent 52-acre Santa Monica Business Park. The
"Strategic Approach" stated that, "It is proposed that the city prioritize
the creation of a Santa Monica Airport/Business Park Specific Plan for both
entities in anticipation of the expiration of the '1984 Agreement' with the
federal government in 2015. After that, the use of the airport land will be
a local land use matter."

Possibilities seem to include SMO remaining in operation as is, shortening
the runway to eliminate jets, extending the business park south to Airport
Avenue, building affordable and/or market rate housing, or converting all or
part of the property into a "great park." (Regarding the park option, see

In 2011, the city undertook an "Airport Visioning" process regarding
possible alternate uses of SMO after 2015. The Ocean Park Association
(opa-sm.org/airport) and Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic
(casmat.org ) also conducted online surveys about the airport's future.
About 80 percent of their respondents wanted to either mitigate the negative
SMO impacts or close the airport.

So how did a busy general aviation airport like SMO end up in the middle of
residential neighborhoods?

Pilots began landing in a grassy field in the southeast corner of Santa
Monica around 1917. Donald Douglas began testing aircraft there and, in
1926, the city of Santa Monica purchased the property with park bond funds,
renaming it Santa Monica Airport.

In 1941, the federal government leased SMO for the Douglas Aircraft Company,
which was manufacturing military aircraft, and built a new 5,000-foot
runway. This required the demolition of many blocks of Sunset Park homes
between 27th to 23rd streets.

In 1948, after the war ended, the eastern section of SMO was returned to the
city through an "Instrument of Transfer." The western section was returned
in a quit claim deed in 1949.

City Hall declined a 1959 Douglas proposal to further lengthen the runway,
which would have required the demolition of even more homes. In order to
consolidate operations in Long Beach, Douglas closed its Santa Monica
facility in 1975. After the plant was demolished in 1979, Clover Park and
Santa Monica Business Park took its place.

City officials banned jets in 1975, but the ban was overturned in 1977. In
1981, the City Council declared its intention to close SMO when legally
possible. However, to settle ongoing disputes, it later signed what became
known as the "1984 Agreement" with the FAA, obligating City Hall to continue
operating SMO until July 1, 2015.

In 1989, the city chose a developer to build 1.3 million square feet of
office/commercial space, with parking for 3,700 cars, on 30 acres of land on
Airport Avenue. After residents gathered enough signatures to get this on
the ballot, the project was canceled.

In 2002, the staff presented City Council with a plan to install standard
Runway Safety Areas (RSAs) and eliminate the larger, faster Category C and D
jets. After years of failed negotiations with the FAA, the City Council went
forward with banning C and D jets in 2008, but the FAA prevented

In 2004, Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution (jetairpollution.com)
began organizing Santa Monica City Council Candidates Forums which focused
on airport issues.

In 2009, the FAA tested a new SMO departure path, sending prop planes over
Sunset Park and Ocean Park homes and schools, rather than over Penmar Golf
Course. That generated thousands of complaints.

UCLA published a study examining the spread of ultrafine particles from jet
exhaust into residential areas downwind (east) of SMO.

Between 1982 and 2011, there were dozens upon dozens of aviation
accidents/incidents and 40 fatalities connected with SMO. These included a
fatal crash at Penmar Golf Course in 2010 and a student pilot crashing into
a Sunset Park home in 2011. A summary is posted at
FriendsofSunsetPark.org/airport under "Safety Concerns." The first jet
accident occurred in September 2013 when a plane landed at SMO but then
veered into a hangar across the alley from homes on Pier Avenue and burst
into flames. Tragically, everyone onboard died.

The British Medical Journal posted a study that analyzed the relationship
between airport noise and cardiovascular-related hospitalizations.
Meanwhile, annual jet landings and takeoffs at SMO increased from 1,725 in
l993 to l8,575 in 2007.

At this point, all the issues are on the table, along with all the
supporting arguments. It appears that the aviation industry's issues will be
decided by the court, and the resulting land use issues may be decided at
the ballot box.

Zina Josephs is a longtime Sunset Park resident. 

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