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.
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.
The internet has been abuzz lately with talk about the latest legal action filed by the City of Santa Monica (“City”) against the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), on October 31, 2013, seeking to avoid FAA’s refusal to allow the closure of Santa Monica Airport, see City of Santa Monica v. United States of America, et al., U.S.D.C. Case No. CV13-08046, an active general aviation airport surrounded by residential neighborhoods.
More specifically, the suit seeks to: (1) quiet title to the real property upon which the airport is now located, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2409a, as having been owned in fee simple by the City since approximately 1926; (2) obtain a judicial declaration that any attempt by FAA to prevent closure interferes with the City’s constitutional obligations to protect the public health, safety and welfare and, thus, constitutes a “taking” without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The City bases this claim on its ownership of the airport property in fee simple, and any constraint on closure is “constructive confiscation of airport property, and, thus, a violation of the prohibition on takings with just compensation in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution;” (3) establish violation of the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution brought about by FAA’s stepping outside the rights given to the federal government under Constitution, and incurring on the powers of protection of the public health, safety and welfare left to the states; and (4) establish violation of the Due Process Clause in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution arising from FAA’s contravention of its own regulatory guidance, which limits FAA’s power to restrict closure to those instances where FAA owned the property upon which the airport to be closed is located.
Leaving aside: (1) the difficulty of maintaining a case for inverse condemnation, or “taking” by one public entity against another where the express language of the Fifth Amendment provides that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use without just compensation,” see, e.g., Complaint, ¶ 106 [emphasis added]; and (2) the hurdle of obtaining declaratory and injunctive relief as a remedy for unconstitutional taking, where the law is clear that monetary damages are the exclusive remedy, there are several attributes that make this case unique, and, thus, not a precedent for action by others seeking to close airports.
The permanent closure or “deactivation” of an underutilized public use airport has gained increasing traction among revenue starved airport sponsors, as well as disparate responses from affected parties. Operators seek to save the drain on diminishing budgets; residential communities surrounding the airport hope for relief from the airport’s impacts; and the pilot community sees its access to the dwindling number of general aviation facilities shrinking further. Whatever the rationale, the operator seeking to close and reuse an airport for non-aviation purposes, that has at any time accepted funds from the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), faces substantial regulatory hurdles and complex procedural requirements.
Your local airport is becoming a drain on the local economy. Sure, it provides a few jobs, adds a certain cachet to the area and provides a hobby for the few people who can afford to purchase and maintain aircraft. But the annual expense of keeping the airport running – and running safely – is becoming more and more like a lead weight on your budget. “Let’s just close the thing,” you say. But wait, remember all that money you accepted from the FAA as part of the AIP grant program to lengthen the runway, pay for new taxiways, and purchase property? The FAA remembers. And before you can close the airport, there are many hurdles to clear set by the FAA to discourage the closure of airports.
1. Take A Look At The Grant Assurances
First, take a look at the documents in your possession – the grant agreements you received from the FAA and signed as a condition of receiving the grants. As you are no doubt aware, under various Federal grant programs, you have agreed to assume certain statutorily defined obligations pertaining to the operation, use and maintenance of the Airport [49 U.S.C. § 47107(a)], that are described and implemented in FAA Order 5190.6B and memorialized in the application for Federal assistance as Grant Assurances, which become a part of the grant offer and bind the grant recipient contractually upon acceptance. 49 U.S.C. § 47107(a); FAA Order 5190.6B, “Guide To Sponsor Obligations” pp. 2-13 to 2-18.