The Santa Monica City Council this week launched an effort to close all or part of the city's airport after July 2015 — a move that could result in years of additional court battles with the federal government.
Council members voted 6 to 0 late Tuesday to develop and evaluate a strategy to scale back flight operations, cut the 5,000-foot runway by 2,000 feet and reduce aviation-related services, such as fuel sales and flight schools.
The decision also calls for the city to consider converting airport land to low-impact non-aviation uses. Meanwhile, it will continue a legal effort to gain control of the facility, which is subject to federal agreements designed to preserve the 227-acre airport, including its 5,000-foot runway.
"We don't want to be told how to use our property," Councilman Bob Holbrook said. "I've sucked in the kerosene fumes.... I've seen the trees turned inside out by jet engines. It's not an environment we should live in."
In addition, Santa Monica officials will consider paying back a $250,000 federal airport improvement grant to free itself from a requirement that the historic facility remain an airport until 2023.
The council approved the proposal although City Atty. Marsha Moutrie said the Federal Aviation Administration has never allowed grant money to be repaid.
The FAA, which has prevailed in every legal attempt by the city to ban jets and gain control of the facility, declined to comment on the measures.
Agency officials, however, reiterated their position that under a 1948 agreement, the city must operate the property as an airport unless the federal government approves a change in use. The agreement, the FAA contends, applies to the entire 5,000-foot runway.
Moutrie cautioned council members that years of litigation were possible if they decided to challenge the federal agreements again and shut down the airport.
During the hearing, the debate over the airport's future played out in full as more than 120 members of the public addressed the effort to scale back or close the oldest operating aviation facility in the county.
Opponents of the airport said it should be shut down because of noisy overflights, air pollution and the potential for deadly crashes in nearby residential areas.
Some speakers were especially concerned about aircraft emissions that contain potentially harmful lead and ultrafine particles of black carbon, which have been found at elevated levels around the airport.
One person compared the situation to Love Canal, the Niagara Falls neighborhood in upstate New York that was heavily contaminated with industrial pollutants in the 1970s. Another speaker worried about safety, saying that being near the airport was like living in Tel Aviv and waiting for a bomb to go off.
"Every takeoff becomes terrorism," she said.
Instead of an airport, opponents urged the council to convert the property into a park with playing fields, gardens, walkways, picnic areas and cultural amenities such as an amphitheater.
Supporters say, however, that the airport contributes $250 million annually to the local economy, offers educational opportunities for children and provides a base for hundreds of medical-related flights a year.
The concerns about noise and pollution, speakers said, will fade due to the increasing use of unleaded aviation gas and cleaner, quieter aircraft engines.
Some speakers chided airport critics who bought homes near the facility and then complained about noise and aircraft emissions. They also contended that most of the air pollution in the area comes from highways and major city streets, not aircraft.
Bill Dunn, an official of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn., said the airport's closure would clear the way for high-rise development rather than a park — a proposal he called the "Big Lie."
Others contended that without the airport, a stream of loud, polluting jetliners would be able to fly thousands of feet lower over Santa Monica neighborhoods on their way to Los Angeles International Airport.