You can find details of the City’s ballot initiative here. You can find the full text of the aviation lobbyist (or AOPA) initiative here, and the City’s summary of it here. Both are designed to modify the City charter in order to make certain things about SMO’s future permanent, but the key to understanding this dispute can be found by simply looking at what each is designed to ‘fix in stone’, and why. Ultimately this whole question boils down to carefully parsing the paragraphs that each will insert into the City’s charter. In such measures, the rest of the language is largely wrapping designed to safely deliver the payload. These two payloads are as follows:
The City’s initiative
If all or part of the Airport is permanently closed to aviation use, no new development of that land shall be allowed until the voters have approved limits on the uses and development that may occur on the land. However, this section shall not prohibit the City Council from approving the following on Airport land that has been permanently closed to aviation use: the development of parks, public open spaces, and public recreational facilities; and the maintenance of existing cultural, arts and education uses.
(a) Voter approval shall be required before any City decision becomes effective that changes the use of land currently used for the Santa Monica Municipal Airport and related aviation services to non-aviation purposes, or that closes or partially closes Santa Monica Municipal Airport. The term “Voter approval” means a majority of the voters of the City Voting “yes” on a ballot measure approving such a change at a general municipal election. (b) Unless the voters have approved the closure of the airport pursuant to paragraph (a) of this section, and Such decision has become effective, the City shall continue to Operate the Santa Monica Municipal Airport in a manner that supports its aviation purposes, and shall not impose additional restrictions on providers of aviation support services to tenants and airport users that inhibit the sale of fuel or the full use of aviation facilities.
Detailed analysis of the AOPA initiative language
Lets start with the AOPA initiative first. The first thing we notice is that it inserts two paragraphs, not one. This likely means it is attempting to accomplish two distinct purposes, which as a matter of electoral law is not allowed for ballot initiatives. Looking at paragraph (a) we see that it basically says that the measure would alter the charter to allow the voters a vote on one thing and one thing only namely the issue of wholly or partially closing the airport to aviation use and transferring it to non-aviation use. The language says nothing about the voters being able to control any development on the land that might be released from aviation use. In other words, despite the AOPA measure’s attempt to masquerade as an ‘anti-development’ measure, in fact it says nothing about empowering the voters to decide what, if any, development might happen on the land. Instead it would allow the City full authority to re-develop the land as it sees fit. This is a startling thing for an initiative put forth by a group calling themselves “Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions”. Their website domain is “www.smvotersdecide.com“. Catchy to be sure, but deceptive, and certainly nothing to do with development. Wouldn’t you think that there would be something in their measure designed to give people the power to control development, but there is absolutely nothing! Merely a paragraph designed to maintain the status quo for aviation businesses at SMO (as we will see below). The public is only offered token vote on closure, after that who cares. Curiously one of the 3 local people who actually filed the initiative, Lauren McCollum, is actually a major real estate developer: While we are on the subject of the 3 that filed the initiative, one of them is Flora Yin. Flora Yin talks about how “voters like her” are fed up with insider political games, and yet she is a lawyer from the firm Reed & Davidson hired by AOPA to orchestrate this deception. Flora’s legal specialization (like the firm’s) is ballot initiatives and how to get the public to go for them, deceptive or otherwise. Clearly Flora is good at her job. The fact is that because this group is actually simply a front set up and funded by AOPA, and AOPA only cares about maintaining aviation use despite the fact that the 1984 agreement with the FAA clearly states that the City’s obligation to operate SMO as an airport ends on July 1, 2015. If the public were to vote to close the airport, after that, AOPA doesn’t care two hoots about what happens to the land, for them its all over.
The City has begun to move towards repurposing the land as agreed, but AOPA, NBAA, and other aviation advocates don’t want that to happen, despite the agreement. A vote on closure is a last desperate act by a group that cares nothing about Santa Monica or its residents, they have publicly stated that their only goal is to make sure that SMO stays open. We know that the AOPA measure’s vote involves sleight of hand, but supposing the closure vote were ever to come to the electorate for a decision, could we actually vote to close it? The answer is clearly no, and the second sentence of section (a) in their language is there to make sure of it: It states that to close the airport would require “a majority of the voters of the City Voting “yes” on a ballot measure approving such a change at a general municipal election“.
Firstly one must ask why do they even have to define ‘Voter Approval’, nobody else does? This is a very carefully crafted and highly deceptive sentence. Normally when the electorate votes on a ballot measure, passage or failure of that measure requires a majority of those voting on the measure, that is if only 100 people were to vote on the measure and 51 of them voted yes, the measure would pass, otherwise it would fail. That is how democracy is supposed to work, because for most measures only a fraction of the electorate actually vote either way on the measure, and more importantly voter turnout at a general election is Santa Monica has historically been around %60-%65 (see chart to the right).
So if we read this sentence carefully it says “A MAJORITY OF THE VOTERS OF THE CITY VOTING YES…“, it does not say “A MAJORITY OF THE VOTERS VOTING ON THE MEASURE VOTING YES…” which is the standard meaning for ‘Voter Approval’. In other words, they are saying it takes one half of Santa Monica’s total electorate (some 60,000 at present) plus one to pass. In other words at least 30,000 Santa Monica voters have to vote “yes” in order to close the airport, because that is what it will say in the City charter! The highest number of “yes” votes cast in the 2012 election was 29,874 for Measure ES (School modernization & Earthquake safety). The next highest was measure GA (rent control adjustment) with 18,650 “yes” votes. In 2010, Measure Y (use tax) garnered 20,046 “yes” votes, Measure YY 22,077, and Measure RR 19,897. I could go on, but you get the picture, it is virtually impossible to get 50% + 1 of Santa Monica’s electorate to turn up and vote “yes” for anything. With an average of 65% turnout, that is just 39,000 active voters and it would require 77% of them to vote “yes”. That is a virtually impossible bar as AOPA well knows.
The AOPA initiative is crafted to make sure that nobody, not even the voters of Santa Monica, and especially not any Council they might elect now or in the future, get any choice in what happens to aviation land in the future. SMO could never change no matter what, and the voters of Santa Monica would have been hoodwinked into making this happen! Pretty clever trick I’d say, but then I suppose that is what happens when national lobbyists meddle in local politics. Just to be clear, the slogan of the AOPA front organization “Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions” is “let the voters decide!”. They claim their measure lets the voters decide, at least as far as deciding on closure, but the truth is it deceptively ensures that the voters can’t even decide on closure! The whole thing is a sham designed to fool the electorate.
Now lets look at the second paragraph (b) of the AOPA language – this is really the final blow to quality of life in our City as we know it, given that paragraph (a) ensures that nobody, not even the voters can change things once the realize they’ve been conned. What paragraph (b) says is that once the City charter has been modified, the City Council can’t do anything to try to prevent current or new adverse impacts of the airport or increased operations from destroying residents quality of life. At present, the City has what are called Proprietor Powers which allow it to introduce new regulations (strictly limited by the FAA) in order to mitigate adverse impacts. An example is the increase in landing fees introduced in August last year, and the extension of those fees to all aircraft including those based at SMO (prior to that, based aircraft paid nothing and the City lost two thirds of its potential landing fee revenues). As a result of introducing these fees, the City’s was able to staunch its losses from operating SMO, which had thus far built up to a debt of around $13 million to the general fund. The airport is now able to at least pay back the interest (but not the principal) on its loan from the general fund for the first time, so the drain has been slowed somewhat.
More importantly, flight schools made the choice to conduct ‘pattern flying’ (repetitive practicing of takeoffs and landings) elsewhere in order to avoid landing fees. The City had earlier asked flight schools repeatedly to move pattern flying elsewhere voluntarily, but they refused claiming such a move would put them out of business and that the City had to pay them $150 per flight to offset losses – i.e., an extra subsidy by the City measured in the millions. The City wisely refused after a community revolt at this idea. Lo an behold, when landing fees went up, they moved their pattern flying elsewhere in response, and their businesses have gone from strength to strength. The City’s ability to mitigate adverse impact is thus clearly crucial since no kind of voluntary program offered by the City is ever taken up. This change to landing fees (an example of Proprietor Powers), has made a significant improvement in quality of life for the neighbors. The chart below starkly illustrates this effect (local traffic essentially means ‘pattern flying’): This and similar charts (see www.CASMAT.org) show that the City can and does use its Proprietor Powers very effectively to mitigate adverse impacts on the surrounding community. Regrettably the jet operators are completely unfazed by landing fees since they amount to a tiny fraction of operating and fuel costs. So with both paragraphs (a) and (b) of the AOPA language written into the City Charter, neither the Council, not its proprietor powers, nor the voters will be able to do anything to stop new or current activity or expansion at the airport including (but not limited to) the following:
- Jet operations have been increasing at a rate of 30% year-over-year. If that continues (which barring a recession it inevitably will), most of the City of Santa Monica will be constantly afflicted with virtually continuous jet noise and there will be nothing that can be done about it.
- The City won’t be able to raise rents to market rates in 2015. Currently aviation businesses pay 15 cents per square foot in rent as a consequence of the soon to expire 1984 agreement. These businesses don’t use the square footage the rent, instead they sub-lease it out to non-aviation tenants at market rates (around $4/sq foot) to reap millions of dollars profit each year, money which should have been flowing into the City coffers for the last 25 years or so (a total loss of potential City revenue of around $100 million dollars over that time). With the AOPA measure in place, increasing the rent will be seen as an “additional restriction”, and the AOPA measure thoughtfully includes the following paragraph: “Any person with a beneficial interest in the operation of Santa Monica Municipal Airport shall have standing to enforce any provision of this Charter Amendment in a court of competent jurisdiction. In addition to any other persons, the proponents of this Charter Amendment shall have standing in California and Federal Courts to defend this measure from all challenges to its validity or enforceability“. This basically means anyone at the airport can sue the City to stop them doing anything they don’t like, including raising their rents. In other words the gravy train of City subsidies to the super rich at City taxpayer expense forced on us by the 1984 agreement will continue forever. Who wouldn’t want such a gravy train to continue – certainly worth spending a few millions on duping the Santa Monica electorate!
- Any City efforts to mandate the use of cleaner fuel would be prevented. It is the adverse health impacts on the surrounding community from the use of leaded AVGAS as well and jet fuel that is the most egregious and ultimately most damaging impact of having an airport so dangerously close to residential neighborhoods. If the AOPA measure passes these impacts will get worse and nothing can be done to stop it.
- The list goes on. Basically, whatever they have up their sleeves or can come up with in the future, nobody can ever stop, not the Council, not the voters. And it will all have been accomplished through this one grand deception that is the AOPA ballot measure.
And as the shopping channel adverts are wont to say … “But wait, there’s more…”. The entire airport campus is comprised of three parcels as shown in the parcel map above. All three parcels are wholly owned by the City and have been since they were purchased in the 1920’s with a parks bond.
The Green parcel to the West is known as the “quitclaim parcel” and is unencumbered by any restrictions the FAA placed on the City when it handed back the land it leased from the City during World War II. The 1984 agreement states that the City must operate SMO as an airport until July 1, 2015, it also requires the City to maintain a 5,000 ft runway. When the 1984 agreement ends (and thus the 5,000 ft restriction is gone), there is nothing to stop the City taking the western parcel (some 2,000 ft of runway), and using it for other purposes.
The blue parcel is aviation land that likely will remain in dispute for many years since the FAA claims the City is obligated to operate that land in perpetuity (a claim that is widely accepted to be false).
The purple parcel is non-aviation land that was released from aviation use as part of the 1984 agreement and which contains the current arts and cultural area as well as the existing 7 acre airport park and playing fields. This non-aviation parcel has been freed from aviation obligations since 1984, as was negotiated by the City at that time. Note however the two areas circled in red. If you look at these areas, you will see that they contain tie-downs and aircraft, even though the land is part of the non-aviation parcel and could be used for other purposes. The reason is that because this land is so close to the runway, it is not practical or healthy to use it for any other purpose and so it has remained in use as additional ‘parking’ for small aircraft. In other words, these red areas are currently in use for “aviation services” and so according to the wording of AOPA’s paragraph (a) in AOPA’s measure, this land would become permanently locked in for aviation use despite the fact that it was bargained away by the FAA back in 1984. In other words, the land grab by AOPA and NBAA not only includes the existing aviation land, they are also planning on taking back non-aviation land released by the FAA back in 1984.
No problem one might think, we’ll simply clear out all the planes and tie-downs before the AOPA measure passes and then there won’t be a problem. Wrong! Elsewhere in the AOPA measure we find another unusual paragraph as follows: Any City decision that would require voter approval under this Charter Amendment and that is made on or after the date of the filing with the City Clerk of the Notice of Intent to Circulate this Charter Amendment shall have no effect until such decision receives voter approval pursuant to Section 2 of this Charter Amendment. Now we see one reason (among many) why this paragraph (known as a retroactivity clause) was placed there. Basically it says that the Council cannot do anything to avoid dire consequences of the AOPA measure (such and moving the tie-downs and planes from non-aviation land, or increasing rents to avoid the planned continuation of the rent freeze). Any such action will also be prevented if the measure passes. The ‘date of filing with the City Clerk’ mentioned in the language was March 27, 2014 – two days after the City Council instructed staff at the Council meeting to look into all possible measures to mitigate airport impacts, up to and including full closure.
This AOPA measure was hastily prepared in response, which explains all the spelling and grammatical errors in their written language that I had to correct in my quotes in order to make them readable. Bottom line, two days after the March 25, 2014 Council meeting, any changes at the airport to anything to do with aviation, were frozen by the AOPA petition gathering effort. Ultimately this signature gathering effort lead by Arno Political Consultants, a firm well known for violating petition gathering rules, led to signature gatherers from around the country flocking to Santa Monica for the rich prize per signature that AOPA had to pay to get their deceptive measure on the ballot. Ultimately they paid $20 per signature which was enough to motivate these gatherers into all kinds of voter deception and finally bought them a place on the ballot at a cost of almost $250,000. This was why neighborhood groups across the City issued statements to their members advising them not to sign the petition and groups like Residocracy and SMRR advised members likewise as did the Council. In the end however, and despite a valiant effort by a small but dedicated group of volunteers to opposed the gatherers, all that outside special interest money flooding into the city got the job done, and AOPA had its measure on the ballot, thus forcing the City to draft their own measure to counteract it. That is why we are where we are now, and that is why CLCSMAL was formed.
Detailed analysis of the City’s initiative language
In contrast to the AOPA language, the single paragraph that would be inserted into the City charter by City’s initiative is very concise, clear, and lacking in deception. It states just two things, both in completely unambiguous language. The first sentence states: If all or part of the Airport is permanently closed to aviation use, no new development of that land shall be allowed until the voters have approved limits on the uses and development that may occur on the land. In other words, the City initiative directly empowers the voters to vote on the limits of what can be done on any land freed up from aviation uses. If the voters want to prevent any development whatsoever on airport land, they simply vote NO on anything that doesn’t specifically exclude it. The City would have to come back in another general election with more stringent restrictions seeking voter approval, and this cycle would have to repeat until voter approval of the specified limits was finally granted.
In other words the voters have full and final control over what can happen in a development sense to all land released. As we all know, it is the specter of uncontrolled development of SMO land that the electorate really cares about, not its use in perpetuity for aviation purposes and the privileged few. The AOPA initiative says absolutely nothing on this matter. By contrast, the City initiative language gives voters full control over future development guaranteed in the City Charter, with no mechanism available for City Council or staff to circumvent this voter right. A very different kind of empowerment from the deceptive and ultimately powerless vote the AOPA initiative purports to grant the electorate. The second sentence of the City initiative language reads as follows: However, this section shall not prohibit the City Council from approving the following on Airport land that has been permanently closed to aviation use: the development of parks, public open spaces, and public recreational facilities; and the maintenance of existing cultural, arts and education uses. In other words, the only thing any freed up land can be used for prior to full voter approval of other uses, is parks, playing fields, open spaces and recreational facilities.
This is a truly stunning thing, it basically says that the only way the airport land can be developed into anything other than park and recreational uses, is if the voters allow it. The City knows of course that any attempt to craft limits that would allow building anything big or high density will be rejected by the electorate as the recent Residocracy victory over the Hines Development has shown. Given this knowledge, if the City measure passes, there would be little point in the City suggesting development limits that it knows would be defeated. As a result they would have no choice but to put forward low intensity use limits that could be agreed by all. Note that all the existing arts, cultural, and education uses are explicitly protected from any impact, although their expansion would still be subject to this language. Ultimately what this means is that because of the hassle of getting voters to approve limits, and the fact that FAA litigation over some airport parcels might well drag on for many years, the City might well finish up just gradually converting all released land into public parks and recreational use, just as it did with the non-aviation parcel land which became airport park and the playing fields.
This makes the most probable future for SMO land, as enshined in the City Charter, becoming a huge park just as Airport2Park has advocated for all along. Such a park would more than double Santa Monica’s developed park space per resident which currently stands at 1.2 acres per thousand residents, one of the lowest for cities in Southern California. By contrast the average for greater LA is 8.5 acres per 1,000 residents. The City initiative clearly answers voters concerns about future development, and it does it in dramatic and breathtaking manner by enshrining in the City Charter the precedence of public parks, open spaces, and recreational facilities as the future of SMO land unless the voters explicitly choose to put something else there. We will never get another chance like this, there are about 180 acres of aviation land that will be subject to this charter amendment.
We owe it to ourselves, our children, and their children after them, to makes sure that the City’s initiative language is written into the charter and that the deceitful AOPA initiative is soundly defeated in the election. To do anything else would be an abrogation of our collective responsibilities. Please do all you can to help CLCSMAL make sure this comes to pass. We need volunteers of all kinds. We need donations to fight AOPA spending of up to $0.5 million in the upcoming election. We will be outspent, but hopefully not by more than 3 to 1. We have the backing of virtually every group in Santa Monica in this quest, AOPA has the backing of none. It is money versus many! We need you tell your friends, neighbors, and family what you have learned and how important their vote is on this issue. Come November, we must all take the trouble to vote. A 65% turnout is not good enough for such an important decision. Lets encourage everyone to come out and vote, and lets make sure we send a clear message to special interest groups that their deceptive tactics, lies, and vast spending will not work in Santa Monica. Lets flush all the money that AOPA, NBAA, and others spend right down the drain and teach them a lesson. Its our land, we paid for it, we own it, we want to be allowed onto it, and we want it back now!