On Saturday, January 28, 2017, the City of Santa Monica (City) and the FAA announced an historic Consent Decree that resolves decades of litigation and controversy over the future of controversy regarding the future of Santa Monica Airport (SMO), as well as several ongoing lawsuits and Part 16 proceedings. The Decree explicitly allows the City to reduce the Airport’s runway by almost one-third of its length in the immediate future and to close the Airport entirely after 2028.
The key elements of the Consent Decree are:
The full text of the Consent Decree is available here.
The Consent Decree ends decades of litigation and controversy over noise and other environmental impacts from SMO operations. The current litigation focused on two issues:
While the City and the FAA were litigating those issues, the City began to take steps to exercise greater control over the airfield in apparent preparation for closure. Among other things, the City began refusing to extend or renew a number of aeronautical leases and sought to establish a proprietary exclusive FBO operation, displacing an existing FBO. Those efforts caused the FAA and a number of airport users to file Part 16 complaints alleging various violations of FAA grant assurances. Additional controversy and litigation appeared to be looming as at least one entity planned to start a scheduled charter service at SMO using jet aircraft without seeking any City approval or permission.
The Consent Decree is extraordinary in that it attempts to resolve all of these controversies. Although the FAA has previously entered into—or supported—settlement agreements that included operational restrictions or limits on future growth, the Consent Decree appears to be unprecedented in that it allows for the City to shorten an existing runway in order to limit the types of aircraft that use SMO and expressly agrees to the complete closure of the Airport on a date certain. Moreover, the Consent Decree is a change from the FAA’s long-standing position, echoed by aviation interests, that SMO is vital to the Los Angeles region and to preserving the aviation capacity of the Los Angeles Basin. For example, in earlier litigation, in which the City was represented by Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell, the FAA vigorously opposed the City’s efforts to prohibit operations by Approach Category C & D aircraft (due to sub-standard runway safety areas) in order to preserve SMO’s capacity. In contrast, shortening the runway to 3,500 feet will effectively exclude much of the large jet traffic at SMO, making SMO a general aviation airport largely for recreational pilots. Although the Consent Decree was hailed in Santa Monica, aviation groups such as AOPA and NBAA expressed disappointment and vowed to fight SMO’s closure.
Although we were not privy to the confidential settlement talks that led to the current Consent Decree, it appears that the FAA believed the litigation risks justified the Consent Decree, which keeps SMO open, at least partly, through 2028 and maintains FAA oversight through several key grant assurances. Had the City prevailed in the litigation, it could have closed SMO immediately.
The unique history and legal context makes it unlikely that the Santa Monica settlement will have much precedential value for other communities, which is underscored by the language in the Consent Decree expressly limiting it to the unique circumstances of the Santa Monica controversy.
Please contact Eric Pilsk or Peter Kirsch for more information.