SMO leases: City Council Steps Off the Track to Let the Train Pass By


090613-_-TRAN-airportNote: This article originally appeared on The Healthy City Local.

Sometimes government—not unlike other aspects of life—can be simpler than expected, and anticlimax rules the day. Whimper rather than bang. This was the case with the City Council’s vote last week on leases at Santa Monica Airport (SMO). I wrote about the issue last week, trying to analyze as many angles about a complex question as I could in one column. In retrospect, overdid it. When the leases finally came before council Tuesday night, the council, after hearing a complicated staff report and about 75 speakers, quickly came to a unanimous and sensible decision that appears to have sidestepped controversy.

As has been reported, City Council approved three-year leases for restaurants and a theater, but deferred action on four leases to aviation businesses. What the Council notably didn’t do was step into the controversial issue of whether the City is required to maintain aviation businesses while the City’s litigation with the FAA is pending. Instead, council asked staff to hold off on the proposed aviation leases because they all allowed for subleasing, which the council had told staff in March that it didn’t want. The council also directed staff to investigate further what are the appropriate market rates rents.

The decision reminded me of the old t’ai chi strategy about how to avoid being killed if you’re standing on railroad tracks and a train is roaring towards you—namely, step off the tracks.

[pullquote align=right]
Don’t hold your breath, but by all rights the City should soon get an overdue answer from the FAA on whether the FAA agrees with aviation businesses that the City is required to keep the airport open until 2023 because of federal money the City spent on the airport. There is no reason to make any strategic decisions about the airport until the City receives that decision.
[/pullquote]Stepping off the tracks was not the advice City Council was getting from some anti-airport activists. For months, going back to before the council authorized staff in March to negotiate three-year leases for both aviation and non-aviation uses on some airport land, there’s been a steady drumbeat demanding that the City confront the FAA and the aviation industry head on, by banning aviation businesses, no matter what the consequences—which are manifestly unpredictable—might be.

The demands have mostly taken the form of emails to Council members that are cc’d to activists, but Monday, the day before the hearing, the City received a formal “lawyer’s letter” from Jonathan Stein, of Sunset Park Anti-Airport, Inc., warning the Council members that if they approved leases with aviation businesses at the rates staff was recommending, Stein would do what he could to have them personally prosecuted by the District Attorney for making “gifts of public funds.”

Stein’s group has been sending out mailers for months to residents of Sunset Park and Ocean Park more or less accusing Mayor Kevin McKeown and other council members and staff of conspiring with aviation interests to create a jetport at the airport. Readers may recall that Stein is the attorney who filed the ill-fated suit against the City and aviation lobbying groups in 2014 trying to invalidate the industry’s initiative to preserve the airport before it could be voted on. (The initiative, as Measure D, was, thankfully, overwhelming defeated in the November 2014 election.)

At the council meeting, cooler heads prevailed. Although initially Councilmember Sue Himmelrich made a motion not to give leases to aviation businesses, by the time council had approved its directions to staff to defer approval of the leases use (aviation or non-aviation) was not part of the Council’s reasons. The primary reason, as Himmelrich confirmed to City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, was to get subleasing out of the leases. Subleasing is also an issue with non-aviation property at the airport.

So what happens next? City Manager Rick Cole made it clear that it’s going to take time for staff to answer the council’s questions about subleasing and rental rates. During that time the status quo will stay the same at the airport, with the notable change that the City is making considerable money as the direct lessor to some large business tenants at the airport that formerly paid rent to aviation businesses that had master leases, in effect subsidizing aviation operations. That money now goes to the City.

Don’t hold your breath, but by all rights the City should soon get an overdue answer from the FAA on whether the FAA agrees with aviation businesses that the City is required to keep the airport open until 2023 because of federal money the City spent on the airport. There is no reason to make any strategic decisions about the airport until the City receives that decision.

Anecdote department: A week ago Sunday I flew back from my vacation in Italy. At one point in the long flight, while I was hanging around in the back of the plane, I got to talking with a young man who it turned out had moved to Santa Monica a few years ago. One thing led to another, and our discussion turned to local politics. He said he hadn’t paid much attention to last year’s election (let’s put it this way, he didn’t recall that I’d been a candidate), except that he and his wife had made sure to vote to turn the airport into a park. (They have a new baby and they were looking ahead.)

Listening to us talk was another passenger, and at a certain point he asked us if we thought Santa Monica Airport would close. I said yes, ultimately. He nodded, and said that he owned property near Van Nuys Airport, and that recently there had been a lot more interest in properties around that airport . . . from aviation businesses at Santa Monica Airport that were expecting it to close, and were looking for places to move to.

Thanks for reading.

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