SANTA MONICA, Calif. (Sept. 1, 2016) – The city of Santa Monica has locked horns with the FAA in an attempt to shut down its airport. In the process, the city has resorted to non-cooperation tactics reminiscent of James Madison’s advice on dealing with federal overreach.

On Aug. 23, the Santa Monica city council voted to close the city’s airport by 2018. But the plan faces one giant hurdle. Just the week before, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) upheld a previous ruling that prohibits closing the airport until 2023. In other words, the council vote was in direct opposition to an edict by the federal government.

The FAA claims that the fact that the city accepted a grant in 2003 for upgrades binds the city to continue operating the airport, as the Los Angeles Times explains.

Eduardo A. Angeles, the FAA’s associate administrator for airports, upheld a decision made in December by Byron K. Huffman, acting director of the agency’s Office of Airport Compliance.

Citing federal regulations, Huffman concluded that a federal airport improvement grant of $240,600 accepted by Santa Monica in August 2003 required the facility to stay open until August 2023. Grant terms usually expire 20 years after their acceptance.

City officials insist that the grant requirements expired in June 2014, 20 years after the initial grant of $1.6 millions. The city takes the position that the additional money was an amendment to the original grant and did not impose new terms.

City residents have long complained about noise and pollution from the airport.This latest FAA ruling was the final appeal, so the city now faces the prospect of suing in federal court.

“Our council and community, in solidarity, want to close the airport that predominately caters to the 1% that can afford to travel by private jet,” Mayor Pro Tem Ted Winterer said. “There are real legal obstacles, and while we need to be conscientious as we navigate the court system, our resolve to close the airport is firm.”

In the meantime, the council took steps designed, as Curbed Los Angeles put it, “to make the airport a little less appealing to the aviation companies and private individuals who make use of it.”

For instance, the city plan includes shortening one of the airport’s runways by 3,000 feet. It also replaces private companies with a city-run operator for fueling, aircraft maintenance and other ground services. According to the Los Angeles Times, city-run ground handling will serve to deincentivize private and corporate jets from using the facility.

The city plan includes several other measures clearly intended to make the airport less appealing.

The measure also calls for eliminating the sale of leaded fuel, adding security, creating a permit system instead of leases for aviation tenants and stepped-up enforcement of local, state and federal laws related to airport operations.

The strategy seems pretty clear – even if the city can’t wrest control of the airport away from the FAA through legal means, it hopes to make it so unappealing that aircraft will find another facility. This would create a sort of de facto shutdown of the airport, or at least take a big step toward the ultimate goal – less noise and pollution.

The city council’s actions follow a strategy James Madison suggested when the federal government engages in “unwarrantable” actions – a refusal to cooperate with officers of the Union. While the council doesn’t quite cross the line into direct refusal to cooperate, it clearly intends to undermine federal will with its plan.

On a more foundational level, Santa Monica’s fight with the FAA reveals some interesting common ground between the political left and right in the United States – a sense the local control should trump bureaucrats thousands of miles away. Most would consider Santa Monica a deeply progressive city. The mayor pro tem’s comments referencing the “1%” indicates the political landscape there. Yet the Santa Monica city council seems intent on battling the federal government with all the tenacity you might find in a Tea Party group challenging an EPA regulation. They may seek drastically different political ends, but they intuitively recognize the power and place for local authority.

It seems unlikely the city will prevail in court. But its local actions may well make the airport essentially unusable for its clientele, essentially getting the city what it wants. And there isn’t a whole lot the FAA can do about it.

Here we see the potential power of local action.

Mike Maharrey

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