The City of Santa Monica has sued the Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA) to establish
the City’s right to control future use of the
Santa Monica Airport property, which the City
has long owned. The lawsuit, filed in federal
court in Los Angeles, asks the court to declare
that the City holds clear title to the land.
And, it also challenges, as unconstitutional,
the FAA’s claim that the City must continue
to operate the Airport indefinitely, even af-
ter contracts establishing the City’s Airport
obligations expire.

In 1984, the City and FAA entered into a Sett-
lement Agreement with the FAA that obligates
the City to operate the Airport until 2015.
In anticipation of the expiration of that con-
tract, the City undertook a three-year Airport
Visioning Process, intended to identify options
for the Airport’s future. Hundreds of communi-
ty members participated in this three-phased
process – the largest ever conducted by the
City. In April of this year, the Council recei-
ved a comprehensive report on the results.

After considering the report and conducting a
lengthy public hearing, the City Council dir-
ected City staff to report back in March of
2014 for further public discussion and a dec-
ision about the future use of the Airport land.
Meanwhile, the Council also directed staff to
continue to explore any and all possibilities
for a voluntary agreement with the federal
government that might modify Airport operations
so as to significantly curtail adverse impacts
on the community.

Since then, City representatives have contin-
ued to meet with FAA representatives in Wash-
ington. City Manager Rod Gould explains, “We
met in Washington many times, and conveyed
community concerns and proposed possibilities
for changes, including operational changes,
that could significantly reduce many of the
Airport’s adverse impacts. The FAA represen-
tatives were polite and respectful. But,they
were simply unwilling or unable to agree to
any changes that could bring significant re-
lief to Airport neighbors. They believe that
the City is legally obligated to continue op-
erating the Airport as it now operates and to
keep operating it forever because of the post-
War transfers.”

The City has owned and operated the Airport
since the 1920’s. During World War II, the
City leased it to the federal government for
a nominal amount in support of the war effort.
During the War, the City and the federal gov-
ernment worked together to expand and improve
the Airport; and, after the war, when the
federal leases expired, the Airport was re-
turned to the City through an Instrument of
Transfer. The federal government claims that
the Instrument of Transfer obligates the City
to operate the Airport “in perpetuity” (forever)
or forfeit its ownership interest to the federal
government. The City disputes this claim based,
in part, on the City’s near 100-year ownership
of the Airport land, the fact that the Airport
was merely leased (not sold), and constitutional
guarantees that prohibit commandeering property
without compensation and forcing local govern-
ments to perform the federal government’s work.

Speaking of the lawsuit, Santa Mayor Pam O’Con-
nor said, “We need to get these legal questions
answered. The community expects us to protect
their health, safety and welfare. And, of
course, the community’s demands for relief from
Airport impacts have only increased since last
month’s terrible crash. We need the court to
decide whether the City has control over its
land so that, next year, we can make a decision
about the Airport’s future. Because this dis-
pute is unique and incredibly important, the
City Council directed the City Attorney and her
staff to partner with the best outside legal
team they could find.”

The City Attorney and senior members of her
office conducted a competitive process that
resulted in the City hiring Morrison & Foers
ter – a global firm with sixteen offices and
more than 1,000 attorneys. Explained City At-
torney Marsha Moutrie, “We were particularly
impressed with the Morrison & Foerster team’s
litigation credentials, aviation experience,
and appellate expertise. I’m certain that
they will provide excellent representation in
this singularly important case. And we look
forward to working with them to resolve the
dispute about the City’s authority to control
the use of its Airport land.”

The case will be heard in Federal District
Court in Los Angeles. Federal rules give the
federal government 60 days to respond to the
City’s complaint.

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