FAA Calls For Court To Dismiss SMO Lawsuit

By Kerry Lynch kerry.lynch@aviationweek.com
Source: AWIN First
January 13, 2014
Credit: Santa Monica Airport

FAA is asking a U.S. district court to dismiss a lawsuit by the city of Santa Monica, Calif., seeking control over Santa Monica Airport, saying the case is invalid because it exceeds a statute of limitations.

The agency further argues that the city is bound by a post-World War II agreement (a 1948 Instrument of Transfer) that requires the continued operation of SMO as an airport, and that the city agreed with that assessment long ago in its own legal findings.

But in a response filed Jan. 10 to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the agency’s brief does not specifically address a 1984 settlement agreement between FAA and the city that calls for Santa Monica to continue operating SMO until July 1, 2015. The city believes that as a result of the settlement agreement, it is free to close the airport if it chooses after that date.

The city’s lawsuit, filed Oct. 31, argues its ability to make that determination, saying it has “unencumbered title to the airport property and its ability … to use the airport property as it chooses.”

The city’s lawsuit has captured the attention of the aviation community because at stake is not only the fate of SMO itself, but potentially up to 200 airports subject to similar post-World War II agreements. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) says the fight over Santa Monica is one that the general aviation community cannot afford to lose, because it could set off a domino effect of similar actions in other communities.

The airport has been the subject of controversy within the local communities for decades, and the city has on several occasions tried to either restrict or ban outright certain operations. The city has turned to the courts and lawmakers for help. But its efforts have largely been rebuffed by FAA.

FAA asked the court to dismiss the case in its entirety when it meets on Feb. 10. Since the lawsuit involves a recorded real estate transfer that occurred more than 65 years ago, FAA contends the city has brought the lawsuit too late. Real estate statutes permitting lawsuits involving U.S. interests in property must be filed within 20 years of learning of the federal government’s interests, FAA states. “[The city’s] knowledge in the 1940s, and in the decades since, of the transaction giving rise to its claim here squarely triggered the … statute of limitations.”

FAA disputed the city’s argument that it has violated its due process rights by demanding SMO be operated in perpetuity. The city argues this amounts to “a taking by the U.S. without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment.” But the agency argues that it has not taken “and is not about to take” possession of the airport property.

The 1948 Instrument of Transfer provides an option for the U.S. to obtain title and possession, FAA says, adding this option only takes effect if the “airport property is not used as an airport.” This has not occurred, FAA says.

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