Closing Santa Monica: California Airport Offers Guidance for East Hampton Airport

Santa Monica Airport plane
Photo: iStock

Late this summer, those folks who live near the East Hampton Airport got so fed up with all the ear-splitting noise of aircraft comings and goings there that they declared the existing rules and regulations inadequate. The airport should be shuttered. They said Santa Monica, a well-to-do community in California, had voted to close their airport. East Hampton could do it too. Many thought this an extreme suggestion, and after awhile cooler heads prevailed and a series of noise restrictions were put into effect. Last week, a court struck down these restrictions. The court said that East Hampton Airport would have to abide by decisions offered up by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has almost never agreed to any noise restrictions anywhere in the country since a law stipulating that requirement went into effect in 1990.

As a result of this, it seems that the option to shut down the East Hampton Airport should be looked into further. Is it viable? Last Wednesday, I decided to go to Santa Monica and see this for myself.

I woke early, drove from my house in East Hampton to Southampton and parked at the Omni, then took a 10 a.m. Hampton Ambassador to New York City, watching the movie Bluebird (which was quite good) along the way, but, before reaching Manhattan, I got off at the Airport Connection in Queens and took a cab to John F. Kennedy Airport and a Jet Blue flight from JFK to Los Angeles International (LAX). There I rented a car from Budget, set my GPS for Santa Monica Airport and found it on the Donald Douglas Loop in that town and drove to it. It was a 12-hour journey, door to door. I hoped it would be worth it.

I walked into what I found to be a spookily quiet main terminal building and followed signs that led me to OBSERVATION DECK, OPERATIONS and RESTAURANT. There, at Operations, I found someone to talk to and asked if I could meet with the Airport Manager. I should tell you that Santa Monica Airport terminal is about the size of Islip-MacArthur. But there seemed to be almost nobody home.

Out front there was plenty of parking. In the back was the single Santa Monica Airport runway, with a bunch of small planes parked nearby. The runway, which is 4,973 feet long, is long enough to accommodate the largest corporate jets. To the northeast, you could look off beyond the end of the runway to see the tall buildings of Century City. Off to the southwest is the residential city of Santa Monica and the community of Venice. Ocean Park Boulevard runs hard by one side of the runway, and there are homes as close as 150 feet from the runway in places. But where was everybody?

Acting as if my coming there was important, I soon got to speak to the Operations Manager, the General Manager, the Noise Control Officer and the Senior Advisor to the City Manager, Nelson Hernandez.

What I found out was quite interesting.

“We are the number one airport in the country that is battling with the FAA,” Hernandez said. “East Hampton Airport is number two. I’m quite familiar with your fight with the FAA.”

I told him about the latest court ruling dealing with noise restrictions. He said he knew about it.

“We’re one step ahead of you,” he said.

He also told me I needed to know how Santa Monica got to where it is today from the year of its founding almost 100 years ago to understand the relevance to East Hampton.

I said I first wanted to know about the number of flights in and out monthly. I was quite surprised. East Hampton has 10,000 arrivals and departures in June, July and August. This big facility at Santa Monica, all year around, averages about 7,000 arrivals and departures a month. In the summer, our little airport is busier than Santa Monica. By the way, Santa Monica is just seven miles as the crow flies from LAX. So, I thought, no wonder the City of Santa Monica, which owns it, wants to close it. But being so close to LAX, as it turns out, is not the reason.

What is today Santa Monica Airport began life as the Douglas Aircraft Company manufacturing plant on what had been a farm field in 1917. The founder was Donald Douglas. In 1926, he sold the land to the City and leased it back as its tenant. Douglas’s commercial aircraft flew around the world in the 1930s, even before the Pan Am seaplanes of Juan Trippe. The houses alongside the airstrip were the homes of the workers, blue-collar workers, at the airport factory. Douglas Aviation became quite formidable in the 1930s. During World War II, in the early 1940s, the government leased the facility, contracted with Douglas to build war planes, and improved the place. Douglas produced the DC-3, a workhorse twin-engine plane used by the Army for nearly half a century.

At the end of the war, the government ended their lease and returned the property back to the City, with conditions whereby the City, in operating the airport, must conform to government operating conditions forever.

In 1973, Douglas moved its manufacturing operations out of Santa Monica to Long Beach, ending the lease with the City of Santa Monica, leaving it as a general aviation facility for small planes and corporate aircraft. Then, in 1987, at the urging of the people who lived in those little houses by the runway, now two generations later and largely no longer blue-collar workers, the City put in noise restrictions on aircraft that took off and landed here. These restrictions are in place to this day. No aircraft is allowed to take off and land with over 95 decibels of noise. There is also a curfew. As I write this, the airport has noise monitors at both ends of the runway that measure Single Event Noise Exposure. It is timed to the arrivals and departures, and if the 95-decibel limit is exceeded there are fines. The first violation gets a warning, the second a $2,000 fine, a third $5,000 and a fourth $10,000. If it happens again after that, the aircraft is banned for six months.

“We now have commercial aviation in this terminal. The public is welcome,” Hernandez told me. “We lease space to small planes. The big corporate jets and charters are handled by Atlantic Aviation, which has a large terminal and hangar elsewhere on the airport grounds, having arranged an agreement with the City of Santa Monica. In fact, sometimes, corporate jets, fully loaded with people and their luggage and a full tank of gas to go to, for example, Teterboro in New Jersey, are too heavy and loud to get under the 95-decibel law. So what they do is take off from here with a small amount of gas—they call it a pick-up service, so people don’t have to deal with LAX—and then fly them up and back down to LAX and gas up all the tanks, and then noisily head off to Teterboro at well over 95 decibels.”

In 1990, Congress passed a law requiring any airport that takes money from the federal government to make its rules and regulations subject to the approval of the FAA. After some hassling, the FAA and Santa Monica agreed that the noise ordinances at Santa Monica had been put in before the FAA law. So their laws were grandfathered in and did not need FAA approvals.

“Your new laws are not grandfathered in,” Hernandez said.

“So why do you want to close the airport?” I asked.

“The City wants to close the airport because it’s a source of noise and airport pollution. We want to close the airport and turn it into a park. The City has been the exclusive owner of the land since 1926. The voters approved a measure in 2014 that said if the airport closes, the only thing that can happen on the land is: parks, open space, recreation, education and culture.

“This past August 23,” Hernandez said, “the City Council passed a resolution to close the airport by June 2018 or sooner.”

Talking further with Fernandez and then later with others, I learned the following additional details about this controversy.

The City sent papers to the FAA about the decision made that included information about the eventual eviction of the business of running an airport there. The FAA responded that because of what was signed after World War II, the City could not do that. Once an airport, always an airport. The matter is now in court, and there is a trial date set for August 2017.

The City believes that the agreement for the grandfathered-in noise ordinances ended in 2015. The FAA says it continues on for another 10 years. It’s how the wording was done. The City says it doesn’t matter. They have voted to tear out the runways and buildings. The 200 acres, which they own, will become a park for the residents of the city.

“Here is what we want to know,” another official at the airport told me. “With the noise ordinance lease coming to an end and our desire to close the airport voted upon, we think it inconceivable that the FAA can force us to have an airport which we don’t want in perpetuity when they never owned the property.”

I told this official the court just decided that East Hampton Airport would have to abide by FAA restrictions put into place in 1990.

“And we’d have to get them to approve our curfews and noise ordinances.”

“Exactly. You’re a step behind us. And your ordinances do not predate 1990.”

“Do you know of any civic airport in America that has noise restrictions like you do?”

“I believe Naples, Florida might have them. But other than that, though many have tried, there have been no approvals of a stage three ordinance, which is really the only effective way to reduce noise. It requires that the charter companies phase in new planes with lower decibel levels. There is a time frame to do this.”

I went back to Mr. Fernandez and thanked him for taking the time to talk to me. I asked if the restaurant at the airport, the Typhoon, was still open, as I had not eaten, and he said today would be its last day. So I ate there. Burgers and fries and BBQ. Its entrance was up on the observation deck. But it can’t continue. The City of Santa Monica has cut back services at the airport to the bare minimum. Another restaurant on the property, just across the street from the Donald Douglas Loop, has also announced it will soon close.

I left Santa Monica Airport, took an Uber back to LAX and took a red-eye Jet Blue back home to JFK, then a cab to the Hampton Jitney stop in Queens and another Jitney back to my car parked at the Omni in Southampton and so home. The whole thing took 25 hours.

I hope what I have learned at Santa Monica is helpful to the East Hampton Town officials in deciding what to do next.

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