City of Santa Monica on Track for Confrontation with Federal Aviation Administration

Predictably, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has weighed in strongly in opposition to the City of Santa Monica’s (“City”) plan to close the Santa Monica Airport (“Airport”) within the next two years.  The City, owner and operator of the Airport, plans to begin the process of closure, including cancellation and/or modification of leases held by various aeronautical service providers, such as providers of fuel, maintenance and hangar storage.  Those Airport incumbents are already paying rent on a month-to-month basis, subject to summary eviction. 

 

The apparent basis of Santa Monica’s position is that: (1) its obligation to maintain the airport is based solely on the terms of its contract with FAA for the provision of funding; and (2) according to its terms, that contract expires 20 years after the FAA’s last grant of funding.
 
The FAA’s position, obviously, differs dramatically.  The agency claims that, according to the terms of a $240,000 federal grant to the City in 2003, the City is obligated to keep the Airport open until at least 2023, see, e.g., FAA Order 5190.6B, Chapter 4, §§ 4.6.h(1) and (2).  Moreover, the FAA asserts that, under the terms of the transfer agreement governing the transfer of the airport property from the military back to the City after World War II, the City is obligated to keep the Airport open in perpetuity.
 

FAA’s position is not unanticipated, as we pointed out in our blog of February 20, 2014.  In the first instance, it is common knowledge among airport operators that the United States Congress has attached to the acceptance of federal funds responsibilities to consumers of the improvements made with those funds.  See, e.g., 49 U.S.C. § 47107(a)(1)-(6), implemented by Grant Assurance 22 which requires, in turn, that the operator of a federally obligated airport “make [its] 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.” See R-T 182, LLC v. Federal Aviation Administration, 519 F.3d 307, 309 (6th Cir. 2008).   

Moreover, while federal fund obligations normally last for the useful life of the facilities, or 20 years, after the grant of the funding, there are notable exceptions.  In addition to the exception that requires that real property purchased with federal funds be used for airport purposes in perpetuity, FAA Order 5190.6B, Chapter 4, §§ 4.6.h(2), there is also the parallel requirement that property transferred from the military pursuant to a surplus property agreement also be used for airport purposes indefinitely.  Both of these conditions apply in the case of the Airport, and both moot the “20 year” escape route relied upon by the City.  
 
Finally, the City plans to oppose, through legal action, FAA’s determination to stop the closure.  The City may be disappointed, however, when it arrives as it plans to do, in Federal District Court.  This is because the United States Congress, in the Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 40101, et seq., requires that any challenge to an FAA order be brought in a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, either the Circuit in which the project is located, in this case the Ninth Circuit, or in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.  See 49 U.S.C. § 46110(a).  Doubtlessly, City will argue that FAA’s effort to stop the closure is not the sort of agency action that falls within the strictures of that section of the statute.  That contest is inevitable, but the outcome for Santa Monica Airport is far from certain.  Stay tuned. 

Judge Blocks City of Santa Monica's Latest Effort to Close the Santa Monica Airport

Predictably, Judge John Walter of the Los Angeles Federal District Court summarily dismissed a lawsuit brought by the City of Santa Monica (“Santa Monica”) aimed at closing the Santa Monica Airport, based on, among other things, unconstitutional taking of property without just compensation.  The court’s decision was made on the procedural grounds that, among other things, the lawsuit was brought too late and in the wrong court.

First, the court found that Santa Monica had brought the suit after the applicable 12 year statute of limitations had expired.  28 U.S.C. § 2409(a)(g).  The court’s rationale was that Santa Monica knew as long ago as 1948 that the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) had a residual claim to the property arising from the Deed of Transfer of the federal government’s lease back to the City of Santa Monica.  That residual claim, therefore, required that Santa Monica’s suit be brought no later than the early 1960s. 

In addition, the court found that, even if a claim for unconstitutional taking could be sustained under the applicable statute of limitations, it was improperly brought in the District Court, as the Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1491(a)(1) vests exclusive subject matter jurisdiction over monetary claims against the federal government exceeding $10,000 with the Court of Federal Claims.  Santa Monica does not, of course, dispute that the value of the airport property that it wishes to recover and use for other purposes exceeds $10,000. 

Although the court chose the procedural route in making its decision, there appear to be relevant substantive grounds as well.
 

First, the parties continue to debate the factual issue of whether Santa Monica’s contractual relationship with the federal government extends only to the year 2015, or as far out as 2023.  The FAA’s reliance on the latter date arises from the fact that Santa Monica took its final federal grant in 2003, and its contract with the federal government is presumed to extend for the “useful life” of the facilities purchased with the most recent grant, or 20 years.  See, e.g., FAA Order 5190.6B, Chapter 4, §§ 4.6.h(1) and (2).  There is also the issue of real property purchased for the airport with federal funds.  In the case of Santa Monica Airport, the then existing Works Progress Administration (“WPA”) and Civil Aeronautics Authority (“CAA”) used eminent domain to acquire additional land in order to replace two runways with a modern 5,000 foot long runway.  As that section was purchased with federal funds, the obligation to keep that portion of the property, at least, in aviation use arguably remains in perpetuity.  Id. at § 4.6.h(2). 

Finally, there is the legal issue of whether the 5th Amendment’s “takings” clause applies to make whole a City like Santa Monica.  The 5th Amendment specifically states: “. . . nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”  [Emphasis added.]

Therefore, there may be a strong argument that the 5th Amendment does not apply where one public entity is alleged to have “taken” the property of another public entity without paying for it. 

For all those reasons, and others, not the least of which is the preemptive authority of the Interstate Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution which militates against the closure of aviation resources, especially where options are as severely constrained as they are in the Los Angeles region, it is doubtful that Santa Monica will prevail in closing its airport.  A more fruitful approach might be an application to the FAA under 14 C.F.R. Part 161 for mitigation measures that can relieve the surrounding population to some extent of the impacts of noise and pollution which were so instrumental in precipitating the lawsuit requesting closure in the first instance.
 

Santa Monica Airport Commission Needs to Look Harder at Federal Law in Proposing Aircraft Access Restrictions

While its zeal to protect its citizens from the noise and emissions of aircraft arriving and departing Santa Monica Airport is commendable and understandable, the Santa Monica Airport Commission’s method is questionable.  That is because its recently proposed proportional limitation on aircraft operations (i.e., a limit on future operations at some percent of current operations) appears to be contrary to Federal law.

More specifically, in a Memorandum of on or about August 2, 2012, the Airport Commission proposed a hypothetical restriction whereby “the number of daily operations would be limited to [approximately] 53% of the daily operations from prior years . . . For example, if there were 100 operations on June 6, 2012, then no more than 53 operations would be allowed on June 6, 2013.”  The Vice Chairman of the Airport Commission argues that, because the proposed restriction does not discriminate between aircraft types (as a prior proposed Santa Monica ordinance limiting operations by jet aircraft did), it would withstand judicial scrutiny.  The Commission has apparently forgotten about the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq., (“ANCA”), and its prohibition on the imposition of noise or access restrictions without approval by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”). 
 

In enacting ANCA, Congress found that, among other things, “(2) community noise concerns have led to uncoordinated and inconsistent restrictions on aviation that could impede the national air transportation system; [and] (3) a noise policy must be carried out at the national level . . .,” ANCA § 47521(2) and (3).  To implement ANCA’s purpose of creating such a coordinated noise policy at the Federal level, Congress mandated that: “Except as provided in subsection (d) of this section, an airport noise or access restriction on the operation of stage 3 aircraft not in effect on October 1, 1990, may become effective only if the restriction has been agreed to by the airport proprietor and all aircraft operators or has been submitted to and approved by the Secretary of Transportation . . .  Restrictions to which this paragraph applies include -- (B) a restriction on the total number of stage 3 aircraft operations; . . . (E) any other restriction on stage 3 aircraft.”  ANCA § 47524(c)(1)(B) and (E).  Restrictions on stage 2 aircraft (the noisiest aircraft in operation in 1990) are easier to enact and require only “(1) an analysis of the anticipated or actual costs and benefits of the existing or proposed restriction; (2) a description of alternative restrictions; (3) a description of the alternative measures considered that do not involve aircraft restrictions; and (4) a comparison of the costs and benefits of the alternative measures to the costs and benefits of the proposed restriction.”  ANCA § 47524(b)(1)-(4).  These restrictions have been interpreted to apply to general, as well as commercial, aircraft.

The Act also mandates that stage 2 aircraft over 75,000 pounds then in operation be phased out by December 31, 1999, and none be added to the fleet (see, e.g., ANCA § 47529) (“Nonaddition rule”).  The only exception to that mandate was a temporary one for stage 2 aircraft under 75,000 pounds (i.e., principally General Aviation).  Even that exception was limited, however, where the Secretary retained the discretion to “conduct a study and decide on the application of section 47524(A)-(D)” to stage 2 aircraft under 75,000 pounds at a later date.  ANCA § 47525.  The Secretary has now made that determination and applied the statute to the previously exempted stage 2 aircraft under 75,000 pounds (most of which have already exceeded their useful lives in any event), in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (“FMRA”). 

In summary, ANCA seems to say that neither Santa Monica nor any other airport can limit the operations of stage 3 aircraft, commercial or general aviation, without Federal approval.  The penalty is loss of FAA funding.  ANCA § 47526.  Granted there is some ambiguity in certain sections of ANCA with respect to applicability to private stage 3 aircraft (see § 47528 [“Prohibition on operating certain aircraft not complying with stage 3 noise levels”]).  Moreover, one or more of the exemptions set forth in ANCA § 47524(d) may apply to Santa Monica Airport.  However, the Airport Commissioners’ Memorandum did not rely upon those potentially applicable exemptions. 

Therefore, despite the Commission’s best intentions, absent an in-depth analysis of ANCA’s applicability not yet in evidence, the Airport Commission’s optimism concerning the sustainability of its proposal, and, ultimately, its ability to withstand administrative and/or judicial scrutiny is in serious question.
 

Santa Monica and Logan Airport Health Studies are Targeting the Wrong Problem

Much has been made recently of the studies currently underway in areas around Boston Logan and Santa Monica Airports, aimed at determining the health impacts of those airports on surrounding populations.  While the aim is noble, and the information to be gained useful in structuring individual living choices, the result will have little or no impact on the operation of those airports. 

 

The airport health studies are apparently aimed at determining the etiology of increased rates of diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis, heart disease and emphysema within a 5-7 mile radius of the airports. Preliminary findings have determined increased rates of those and other ailments within those areas. So far, so good.

The problem with that approach, however, is two-fold. First, both airports are located within highly urbanized areas which give rise to multiple alternate sources of pollution such as freeways, and, in the case of East Boston, manufacturing and freight warehousing. It is unclear if the airport studies have screened out the effects of such intervening exogenous variables, as well as the impacts of other variables such as genetics, health care, eating habits, etc.

Second, even if their methodologies and conclusions are accurate, there is little to be accomplished with the result of the studies. There are no Federal laws or regulations that would mandate changes in the way airports operate because of the incidence of health problems disclosed by the studies.

A much more fruitful approach would be to devote the time and resources to an assessment of the airports’ “conformity” to their individual State Air Quality Implementation Plans (“SIP”). The Federal Clean Air Act prohibits any department, agency, or instrumentality of the Federal government from engaging in, supporting in any way or providing financial assistance for, licensing or permitting or approving any activity which does not conform to an “Implementation Plan.” 42 U.S.C. section 7506(c)(1). Therefore, if a methodologically sound study can establish that airport’s operations do not conform to the relevant SIP, the Clean Air Act unequivocally prohibits the FAA from further funding the airport. Loss of funding is a significant incentive to the mitigation of health and other impacts which are the fundamental concern of affected populations.

In short, the Boston and Santa Monica Airport health studies are aimed more at the emotions than at the solution. People living in close proximity to airports would be better served by studies like conformity analyses that provide them leverage in the struggle to reduce airport impacts.