Tuesday, October 28, 2014

At Santa Monica Municipal Airport (KSMO), the Noise Off the Runway Is Getting Louder

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Residential neighborhoods encircle the municipal airport here on three sides. And while it has no airline service, about 260 aircraft operate every day from Santa Monica Municipal Airport’s 5,000-foot runway on a plateau above the surrounding terrain.

From above, the airfield looks “like an aircraft carrier in a sea of homes,” says Alan Levenson, who lives near the airport and sometimes watches the activity from the roof of his garage.

Aircraft as small as single-engine planes and helicopters and as large as twin-engine business jets fly in and out of the 227-acre airport. As its traffic has increased, it has brought to a boil a simmering battle over whether the airport has outgrown its surroundings.

Next week, voters in this Los Angeles suburb of 92,000 will go to the polls to determine who should control the airport’s future: elected leaders or residents. Debate over the airport extends far beyond city limits, involving the federal government and national aviation lobbying groups.

“The issue is, This used to be a small airport that didn’t have jets, and people managed to get along,” said John Fairweather, another airport neighbor and the leader of one of several groups that want either a reduction in jet traffic or closure of the airport.

The initial dispute started in the 1960s, when neighbors objected to the noise of the Learjet, one of the first private American business jets and the product of the Santa Monica-based Lear Inc. In 1967 the city restricted jet flights into the airport until a federal court overturned the ban in 1981. Since then, the City Council has imposed flight curfews, landing fees and noise abatement measures.

Jet traffic continued to grow, however, peaking in 2007 when there were 18,500 jet flights at the airport. The growth was propelled by companies selling fractional jet shares and by-the-hour jet travel cards. Jets were 13 to 14 percent of all flights until the economic crisis of 2008. While the total number of jet operations has not recovered, jets are now a larger percentage of the total traffic. According to a report prepared by the Santa Monica airport’s Noise Management Office, jets made up 15 percent of traffic in 2013.

These numbers infuriate neighbors like Mr. Levenson, who says the airport primarily serves outsiders and private, wealthy fliers “while continuing to threaten the health and safety of the neighbors it no longer employs or benefits.”

A complicated trail of lawsuits and real estate transfer agreements runs parallel to the history of the Santa Monica Airport, which was acquired by the city in 1926. Douglas Aircraft used it through World War II and built many of the nearby homes for its workers. But for all the documents generated in the dispute, none has definitively resolved the question that voters will decide on Nov. 4: Who should have the power to make decisions about its future — its residents or the council they elected?

In the face of the complaints, the city has been examining the economic and environmental impact of the airport.

“You’ve got a greater and greater density” in population, said Martin Pastucha, Santa Monica’s director of public works. “The use of the airport at its inception is a different environment than what it is currently, and you have to ask, ‘Are those two compatible anymore? Is the airport really compatible with current land use that exists around here?'  ”

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, an airport advocacy group, is one of two lobbying groups based in the Washington area that is helping to finance a referendum requiring city leaders to maintain the status quo at the airport and get voter approval for any changes. Only this would protect the airport from what the association’s vice president of airports, Bill Dunn, claims is the council’s effort to seize the land for future development to the detriment of aviation.

“Would you consider closing the entrance or exit ramp from your city to the highway? A general aviation airport is an access point to the national aviation system,” he said. “It’s an entry point to take you anyplace in the world.”

Supporters of the airport point to Santa Monica’s long history of aviation.

“The airport has been there 70, 80-plus years,” said Todd Baumgartner, a senior partner at the aviation consulting firm FBO Partners and a former executive for NetJets, a fractional jet ownership company. “They didn’t know that when they bought their house? That in itself is frustrating.”

The city’s immediate concern is the vote, to establish how a majority of the voters feel about the council members’ ability to resolve this lengthy dispute. “What the council is slowly seeking is a determination” of whether it has the right to control the airport’s role in the city’s future, Mr. Pastucha said.

The airport’s space so restricted, it is exempt from runway protection requirements, a fact not lost on the airport’s foes.

Government statistics show there have been 10 accidents related to aircraft operating from Santa Monica Municipal Airport over the last 10 years, four of them fatal. In 2011, a student pilot crashed a small plane into the side of an unoccupied house a quarter-mile from the runway. A year later, another private plane crashed short of the runway, killing the pilot. Neighbors grew more concerned last fall when a Cessna Citation business jet slammed into a hangar shortly after landing, killing all four people on board.

“So far no one has ever been killed on the ground,” Mr. Levenson said, “but accidents do happen.”

Safety and health issues related to aviation fuel emissions and noise are some of the complaints the City Council must consider as it weighs options like reducing traffic or closing the airport, Mr. Pastucha said.

Regardless of what Santa Monica residents decide next week, there is still the matter of the Federal Aviation Administration, which contends that the city is obligated to operate the airport for the use and benefit of the public, according to Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the agency. A city lawsuit challenging the F.A.A. was dismissed as not timely, and city officials say they have not given up.

“We’re really a balancing act between trying to deal with these interests,” Mr. Pastucha said, “and trying to navigate the conflict that exists between the two.”

Story and Photos:  http://www.nytimes.com

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