Santa Monica temporarily stops airport evictions amid federal investigation

As a federal investigation into Santa Monica’s effort to shut down its municipal airport continues, city officials have temporarily stopped evicting aviation businesses from the embattled property.

Atlantic Aviation and American Flyers, two major tenants that provide a variety of services from fuel to flight training, were ordered to vacate their facilities by Oct. 15. 

But city officials said they have postponed the evictions, at least until Nov. 4, because of a pending agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration that is scheduled to go before the City Council on Oct. 25.

Despite the delay, Nelson Hernandez, a senior advisor to the city manager, said Santa Monica officials remain committed to closing the airport and replacing Atlantic and American Flyers with a city-run operation that relies on municipal employees.

“We are serious. We are committed, and we’ve got everything it takes to set up our own operation,” Hernandez said Tuesday. “The city has studied salaries, staffing and the equipment that is necessary.”

In addition to the proposed federal agreement, the council will consider approving the city-run replacement for Atlantic and American Flyers next week.

City officials say they want to provide cleaner bio-fuels and unleaded aviation gas instead of the conventional jet fuel and leaded gas sold by the two private companies.

Whether Santa Monica will offer the other services provided by Atlantic and American Flyers is unclear. Hernandez said the city would do only “what is legally required” by the FAA.

The evictions are part of the city’s airport “starvation strategy” that includes reducing flight operations, forcing out aviation businesses, shortening the runway and closing the airport by July 2018 if legally possible.

In the latest departure, the Typhoon restaurant, a 25-year tenant, recently announced that it would close on Nov. 8. According to a note sent by the owners, “The city of Santa Monica has nearly tripled our rent and made business conditions so difficult that it has become impossible to carry on without incurring financial ruin.”

The city’s aggressive approach prompted the FAA in September to open an investigation to determine whether municipal officials are violating various federal agreements that date back to 1948 when the airport was returned to the city following its use by the military during World War II.

The agreements prohibit unjust discrimination against aviation uses and require the city to keep the airport open until at least until 2023, if not in perpetuity. The FAA has scheduled a hearing on the matter for Oct. 28.

David Hopkins, vice president of the Santa Monica Airport Assn., said he supports the decision to postpone the evictions and the investigation to enforce the city’s federal obligations.

“City officials are just playing a political game, trying to garner votes,” Hopkins said.

Once used by Douglas Aircraft Co, the 227-acre airport is now home to about 270 aircraft from small Cessna propeller planes to large Gulfstream business jets. The facility serves as a reliever airport for Los Angeles International airport and handles an average of 452 takeoffs and landings a day.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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