Federal government seeks to dismiss Santa Monica Airport lawsuit

Aircraft line the runway as a small plane lands at Santa Monica Airport, now the subject of a federal lawsuit that could determine its fate.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

In the battle to close Santa Monica Airport, the federal government on Friday requested that the city’s lawsuit to gain control of the historic facility be dismissed.

Santa Monica officials sued in October, challenging the constitutionality of a 1948 agreement that transferred ownership of the property and its 5,000-foot runway from the federal government back to the city after World War II on the condition it remain an airport.

Filed in U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles, the city is seeking a declaration that it has clear title to the 227 acres that contain the oldest continuously operating airport in the county. Supporters of closing the facility hope a favorable decision will clear the way for a new park.


Government attorneys, however, argue that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the city filed it too late. They contend that federal law related to title disputes required Santa Monica to sue within 12 years of learning about the federal government’s interest in the airport.

According to the motion, the 1948 transfer agreement, which was signed by city officials, documents that interest -- something that was demonstrated three more times in 1952, 1956 and 1984 when the government released three airport parcels from required aviation uses.

“Consequently, this case is jurisdictionally deficient because it was brought too late,” wrote attorneys for the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Department of Justice.

They further assert that the 1944 Surplus Property Act, which was used to return the airport to the city, is constitutional. Passed by Congress and later amended in 1947, it authorizes the conveyance of surplus federal property to meet the needs of the federal government, including the preservation of airports for national defense and the development of civilian aviation.

The motion notes that in 1962 and 1975, the Santa Monica city attorney and the California attorney general respectively reviewed the legality of the transfer agreement and concluded that the city could not close the airport unless the federal government approved.

The lawsuit, like the city’s constant attempts to close the facility or restrict its operations, has attracted the attention of the local aviation community and national organizations such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. and the National Business Aviation Assn.


If the court overturns the 1948 transfer documents, it might open the door to efforts to close or re-purpose other airports around the country that were returned to local governments after World War II. According to the pilots association, there are at least 203 such airfields.

Over the years, attempts by Santa Monica to shut down the airport and curtail jet operations have not been successful in court. In the latest effort to ban jets with fast landing speeds, a federal appeals court ruled against the city in 2011, concluding that the prohibition illegally discriminated against aircraft types.

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