Judge tosses Santa Monica’s airport lawsuit

A man walks out onto the tarmac as a plane lands on the runway at the Santa Monica Airport. Community activists vowed to keep fighting to shut down the facility, despite a judge's dismissal of the city's lawsuit seeking ownership of the airport.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

A federal judge threw out Santa Monica’s lawsuit to wrest control of its airport from the U.S. government this week, but community activists vowed on Friday to keep fighting to shut down the historic facility.

“This case is far from over,” said Martin Rubin, director of Concerned Citizens Against Airport Pollution. “If the city of Santa Monica wants to close the airport and use it in a fashion that would be more beneficial economically and environmentally, then the Federal Aviation Administration should allow them to do just that.”

Santa Monica airport: In the Feb. 16 California section, an article about the dismissal of a lawsuit over control of Santa Monica’s airport identified Martin Rubin as director of Concerned Citizens Against Airport Pollution. The group’s name is Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution.

Others said they would propose a “starvation strategy” to the City Council designed to reduce flights, aircraft services, aviation-related businesses and possibly remove a large section of runway.

Jonathan Stein, an attorney and airport opponent, said many activists favor strangling the airport to steadily reduce noise and air pollution in surrounding neighborhoods. He added that details of the strategy could be ready for circulation in the community next week.


“In my view, the lawsuit was unnecessary. Not only was the timing off, but other measures can be taken without FAA approval, such as letting leases expire and ending fuel sales.”

Santa Monica sued in October to free itself from a 1948 agreement that transferred ownership of the property and its 5,000-foot runway back to the city after World War II on the condition that it remain an airport unless the government approved a change in use.

Late Thursday, at the request of federal attorneys, U.S. District Judge John F. Walters dismissed the case, which community activists and city officials hoped would clear the way for closure of the 227-acre airport in 2015.

Walters ruled that Santa Monica had 12 years under the Quiet Title Act to sue to gain unconditional ownership, but that time expired as early as 1960.

His decision threw out another contention that the government’s control of the airport amounted to an illegal taking of municipal property without just compensation. The judge noted that the city failed to first seek compensation in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

Also dismissed was an assertion that the city only had to operate the airport until next year under a 1984 court settlement with the federal government that resolved aircraft noise issues.

Walters said the settlement did not mention any agreement over whether the city had to keep the airport open after 2015 or whether it would revert to the federal government if the city stopped airport operations.

“This is positive,” said Joe Justice, who has operated an aircraft business at the airport for 22 years. “The city wasted $1.5 million unsuccessfully defending its jet ban a few years ago. Now they’ve hired an expensive law firm to sue again. How much did the city waste this time?”


In anticipation of the airport’s closure, community groups, city officials and airport opponents have been talking about converting the airport into a park. Earlier city councils have discussed the possibility of building a business or industrial complex.

“The dismissal is unfortunate,” said John Fairweather, director of Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic, who is helping craft the starvation strategy.

If the city tries to curtail airport operations, it might lead to new legal challenges by the FAA and efforts to save the airport by national aviation organizations. Mark Baker, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn., said his group would use “every resource available” to prevent another attempt to close the facility.