Jan. 26, 2015

NBAA joined with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) last week in jointly filing an amicus curiae brief in support of the FAA’s opposition to one of the latest efforts by the city of Santa Monica, CA to restrict operations at – and possibly close – the historic Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO). The “friend of the court” brief supports the oft-upheld legal precedent that airports that have accepted grants or property from the FAA are obligated to continue to make those airports accessible to the public.

Last February, a U.S. District Court in California agreed with the FAA in dismissing an October 2013 lawsuit filed by the city, in which Santa Monica officials maintained the city had never relinquished control over airport land when it leased the property to the United States government as a military airfield during World War II. That stipulation, the city argued, voided any subsequent obligation in agreements with the FAA requiring the city to maintain the land as a civilian airport.

The FAA countered that any questions over which entity holds the title to SMO must be settled under terms of the Quiet Title Act, which requires that such lawsuits be filed within 12 years after a claimant learns of the federal government’s interest in the property. That first occurred, the agency asserted, when both parties agreed in August 1948 to return oversight of the airfield to the city – a position that the district court ultimately agreed with.

Aviation attorney Jol Silversmith, a partner in the law firm of Zuckert, Scoutt & Rasenberger in Washington, DC, stated the city has failed to cite any basis in its latest appeal for the court to overturn the earlier decision.

“Santa Monica has essentially restated on appeal its position that the city did not realize until 2008 that the federal government understood that the city had a permanent obligation to keep SMO open as an airport, as well as that a 1984 agreement between the city and the FAA specifically overrode the 1948 surplus property agreement. But that simply isn’t the case,” Silversmith added.

“Furthermore,” continued Silversmith, “in their latest amicus brief, AOPA and NBAA have asked the court to consider testimony previously given by a city attorney, which further confirms the city was aware of the federal interest in SMO at least by the early 1980s, well before the 12-year deadline for bringing a claim under the Quiet Title Act.”

The brief, filed Jan. 22, also restates the position held by AOPA and NBAA that SMO is an important airfield within the Los Angeles basin, representing a vital link to the national transportation system. Furthermore, the brief notes the ominous precedent that could be set for airports across the country should Santa Monica be allowed to take control of the airport property in this manner.

NBAA Western Regional Representative Stacy Howard noted the city has repeatedly attempted over the past 50 years to restrict operations at SMO, with each prior case determined in favor of the federal government. “The city’s arguments in this latest appeal are much the same as before,” she concluded. “We feel strongly that the court’s initial ruling will be upheld.”

A hearing date has not yet been determined to consider the city’s appeal.

Review the amicus brief filed by NBAA and AOPA. (PDF)