Feds Win: Court Says Santa Monica Can’t Close Its Accident-Prone Mid-City Airport

Monday, February 17, 2014

A deal is a deal.

When the Southern California city of Santa Monica got its airport back from the federal government after a brief change of ownership during World War II, it came with a big precondition—that the airport stay forever unless the government changes its mind.

Santa Monica didn’t challenge that provision, although its lawyers now think it is unconstitutional, until 2008 when the federal government cited it during a battle over use of the airport that sits in the middle of the midsize city. The city sued (pdf) “to remove the cloud that the United States placed on the City’s title in 2008.”

Last week, U.S. District Judge John F. Walters not only left the cloud in place, he seeded it and produced a downpour. The judge ruled (pdf) that the 12-year statute of limitations had run out because the clock started in 1948 when the airport was reacquired.

Although the original deal called for total reversion of control one year after the war’s state of emergency officially ended, the federal government amended it to include, “That no property transferred by this instrument shall be used, leased, sold, salvaged, or disposed of by” the City “for other than airport purposes without the written consent of the Civil Aeronautics Administrator.”

The judge said subsequent actions by Santa Monica over the years indicated it knew and accepted the federal government’s continued attachment to the property.

Walters also said there were a couple of other problems. The case was “unripe” and couldn’t be heard because there was no established conflict to resolve. Santa Monica claims that ultimate control of what to do with the airport would revert to the city if it refused to operate the facility. The judge said they would have to do that before bringing a court action.

Walters also said the city skipped a step and should have filed a complaint with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims before heading to his court. 

Santa Monica Municipal Airport, originally known as Clover Field when World War I biplanes flew off its dirt landing strip, is completely surrounded by mostly upscale neighborhoods that have struggled to cope with an airport in their midst. That wasn’t made any easier when civilian jets arrived in the early 1960s.  

Lawsuits quickly followed. Residents argued the airport was and annoyance, unsafe and ruined their property values. Businesses and users challenged city attempts to reduce the airport’s impact on the community. The history of the airport, as told by airport officials, roughly breaks down five decades starting in the ‘60s as: “Early Regulations and Litigation,” “More Controversy More Regulation and More Litigation,” “Continuing Controversy Resolved,” “Controversy Rekindled” and “Controversy Over Runway Safety.”

It has been a contentious 50 years. And dangerous. Last September, a twin-engine Cessna veered off the runway on approach, crashed into a hanger, burst into flames and killed the four people onboard. It was the latest in a series of accidents that often weren’t contained to the airport.

February 1991 A Piper PA46-301P tried to make an emergency landing but struck a home in West Los Angeles on the way to the airport.

January 1992 The pilot of a Mooney M-20-C and his passenger died after hitting a utility pole and landing in the front yard of a home near the airport.

November 1993 A student pilot, the son of filmmaker Sydney Pollack, crashed into an apartment building carport near the airport and died, along with two passengers.

March 1994 A pilot flying a Piper PA-28-180 crashed into a home and died as he attempted to return to the airport after a part failure.  

April 1994 Shortly after takeoff, a Piper PA-32R-301T ran out of gas and crashed into a nearby back yard/garage, killing the pilot.

May 1995 A home-built experimental Davenport Long-EZ lost power on approach, clipped some power lines and just missed a home before crashing into a garage. The pilot was critically injured.

February 1997 A Cessna 310Q lost power and the pilot landed on a nearby golf course.

June 2003 A pilot in a Beech A36Tc, headed for Las Vegas, smacked into a three-story apartment building shortly after takeoff. The pilot, three passengers and an apartment resident died. Seven people on the ground sustained serious injuries.

July 2010 A pilot doing “touch-and-go” landings in his Cessna 152 crashed into the 8th hole of the nearby Penmar Municipal Golf Course and died.

This list of airport-related accidents that were outside the airport stretches back far before 1990 and the list of those that are confined to the airport is just as long. Community groups and opponents of the airport have been making plans for years on what to do with the airport property if the city ever regains total control. Those plans might be on hold for awhile.

–Ken Broder  


To Learn More:

Federal Judge Tosses Santa Monica Airport Lawsuit (by Kevin Herrera, Santa Monica Daily Press)

Federal Judge Throws out Santa Monica's Lawsuit over Airport (by Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times)

Airport History (Santa Monica Municipal Airport)

Plane Crash History Connected to Santa Monica Airport (by Kelly Hartog, Santa Monica Patch)

Santa Monica Argument against Case Dismissal (U.S. District Court Central District of California) (pdf)

City of Santa Monica v. United States of America, et al. (U.S. District Court Central District of California) (pdf)

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