If you’ve been following the continuing saga of the Santa Monica airport (SMO), it’s easy to see how things have become so contentious, and yet this is precisely why we have laws. It keeps things relatively civilized—mostly. In summary: SMO Airport began as a grass strip in the 1920s, and shortly afterward Douglas aircraft moved in and began building the first and subsequent generation of airliners (DC3-DC7).
During WWII, Douglas was running 24 hours a day, and L.A. and Santa Monica rezoned the area to allow housing right up to the perimeter of the airport so the workers could be right there! The government took over the airport during the war and in 1948 offered the airport back to the city with the stipulation that it must remain an airport in perpetuity. The city agreed and signed the contract.
Douglas started building jets in the 1950s, and these aircraft were, according to some, 10 times louder than they are today, but the production moved to Long Beach. GA jets arrived in the ‘60s, and they were loud, too. A high-roller operation to move people out to Las Vegas in the early evening and have them back before dawn, presumably broke but happy, did not please the neighbors. The first class-action lawsuit cropped up in 1967 and the airport won. In ’69, a second lawsuit prevailed to establish a curfew from 2300 to 0700. Other restrictions regarding pattern work and flight paths were also introduced.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, GA operations were at an all-time high, running nearly 360,000 per year. It has since dropped to levels not seen since the 1950s due to decline in GA activity, and many aircraft are much quieter.
But history has a way of being repetitious—some of the neighbors would like to shut down the airport and develop it into something else, but there’s this nasty business of contract law (some would say “dealing with the devil”).
Here’s an excerpt from a letter to the editor of a Santa Monica blog:
“According to the article, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association claims a survey it conducted shows that two-thirds of Santa Monica residents believe the airport should remain open. I would be interested to know where the pilots association got their “facts” and where these pilots actually “live?”
The airport serves the few not the many, and we living near it can no longer tolerate the constant barrage of noise, pollution and toxic cancerous particles raining down on our homes and gardens. If the city will not fight the FAA to take back the land when the lease expires in 2015 it is time to vote all of them out of office.”
The lease that is referred to does not override, according to those who know such things, the contract of 1948.
AOPA and other groups have put considerable effort into attempting to bring some reason and legality to an emotional argument. The contract between the city and the FAA is binding, as several audits have shown. Would some of the homeowners be defensive of their own property deeds, some going back to 1948? If one decided that they just didn’t care for what the homeowner was doing—even though they were doing less of it and had been doing it since long before the newer neighbors moved in—made no secret of that fact, and in fact had a contract that allowed them to do it, how would that play? (You might accuse me of being a bit rhetorical—not to mention long-winded!)
Here’s where the educational outreach by AOPA and the Foundation come into play. Instead of attempting to move the goal posts after the rules of the game are established, it’s much better to help people understand how the game is played before they put a team on the field. In SMO’s case, it’s tough to put the toothpaste back in the tube, but how much better would it have been to have been: 1) Educating the community about the benefits of the airport before things became completely polarized; 2) Requiring that an avigational easement be a part of every property sale within the noise impact area of SMO so no one could claim they didn’t know; 3) Offering rides, airport tours, and school and civic club presentations to affect number 1; 4) Looking for ways to be a good neighbor consistent with safety.
How does your community feel about the airport? It’s far better to be a fire marshal and prevent the fire from starting than to call out the fire department after it gets going—there will inevitably be damage.