Santa Monica: The Quest for Local Control Continues

The last time the City of Santa Monica accepted FAA grant monies was in 1994. But, airport grants are not just for subsidizing the few who use the airport; they are also for imposing restrictions on the airport sponsor (in this case, the City of Santa Monica), so as to perpetuate the airport and also to compel airports to become dependent on more FAA grants. The list of restrictions, called ‘Grant Assurances’, is extensive. One of them, Grant Assurance 22, comes up time and again, used by FAA and aviation interests to confound airport sponsors and activists seeking balance or closure. 

By definition, Grant Assurances remain valid for 20 years; thus, 20-years after a grant is accepted, if an airport sponsor accepts no grants for those twenty years, they have finally earned their freedom from grant-slavery, come clean, and can theoretically regain local control of their local airport. This is what the people of Santa Monica aspired to do eight years ago, in 2014.

The Santa Monica Airport is jammed up against houses and, in fact, the spacing is so deficient residents have had lawn furniture overturned by the blast behind taxiing jets. The lead from leaded aviation fuel continues to be deposited on area homes, because FAA and the aviation industry have stonewalled the replacement of leaded aviation fuel. Indeed, in the 25-years since lead was removed from all U.S. automotive gas stations, there have been thousands of new engines built, put into new small recreational airplane designs, all centered on the consumption of leaded aviation fuel.

Activists have been fighting for health and quality of life for many decades, so it is not surprising that, when the City of Santa Monica finished their last grant obligations in 2014, a ballot measure was added to the November election seeking local control and conversion of the property to a park. The aviation lobbyists spent lots (estimates were 8-times the spending by Local Control proponents,) but they lost. The majority spoke and voter empowerment made it look like residents were going to see a park soon. It was headed that way until late January 2017, when a few City officials, fearful of dragged out legal challenges and an ongoing lack of FAA cooperation, caved to FAA’s pressure and ‘settled’ with a Consent Decree that made airport closure arguably a lot less likely.

The fight goes on. City Council met just last Tuesday, and was given a 94-page packet by City Manager David White, ‘Update on Dispensing Unleaded Fuel at SMO’. They also received 72-pages of citizen comments, all advocating for an end to leaded fuel sales, and preferring a full closure of the four underground fuel storage tanks the City owns. Included was this 3-page PDF investigating the integrity of the fuel tanks.

So, What’s With ‘Grant Assurance 22’?

Grant Assurance 22 is ten pounds of ambiguity under the headline, ‘Economic Nondiscrimination’. It has nine listed elements. Three of them are:

Grant Assurance 22a states: “It will make the airport available as an airport for public use on reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination to all types, kinds and classes of aeronautical activities, including commercial aeronautical activities offering services to the public at the airport.”

Grant Assurance 22h states: “The sponsor may establish such reasonable, and not unjustly discriminatory, conditions to be met by all users of the airport as may be necessary for the safe and efficient operation of the airport.”

Grant Assurance 22i states: “The sponsor may prohibit or limit any given type, kind or class of aeronautical use of the airport if such action is necessary for the safe operation of the airport or necessary to serve the civil aviation needs of the public.”

So, while 22a seems to imply ANY aviation activity has to be allowed without discrimination and on reasonable terms, both 22h and 22i offer exceptions, allowing specific conditions and even outright prohibitions, as needed for safety and efficiency.

Would it be a ‘reasonable term’ to NOT allow lease of an underground tank past its designed age limit? Should FAA’s view of safety include protecting area residents from lead toxin exposures? Is FAA our friend or our enemy (with us or against us)? What kind of a regulatory agency is it that leans hard with its sole authority but lacks the heart to cooperate with communities impacted by its activities?  Is this the same agency that handed off regulatory action to Boeing for the deadly 737MAX fiasco, and the same agency that grounds all tiny drones in yards to protect manned aircraft (yet is now slowly repealing rules so drones can fly low over crowds of people)? Yup, this is FAA: the U.S. aviation ‘faux-regulator’ captured to serve aviation, and working to protect industry from problematic people.

Oddly, the City Attorney is hung up on Grant Assurance 22, acting and speaking uncomfortably to question its applicability. And, unfortunately, the City Manager appears to be parroting the statements by the City Attorney. As a result, the City’s residents are being subjected to an unsafe, unhealthy perpetuation of aviation privilege that benefits a tiny elite. But these City officials are missing an important reality, so fearful they are of FAA. Both of them should ponder this: if they shut down all the tanks and an aviation lobbyist files a Part 16 complaint (against the City, claiming they are not compliant with grant assurances), their biggest penalty will be placement on the ‘Airport Noncompliance List’ and loss of grant eligibility… neither of which matter, for an airport set to close later this decade.

So, let’s close down the underground tanks. And, thank you, City of Santa Monica, for standing up to the FAA bully.