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$800,000 campaign question: Who'll call the shots at the Santa Monica Airport?

Neighbors of Santa Monica Airport have complained about noise from the aircraft taking off and landing, and they post signs asking pilots to fly quietly.
Neighbors of Santa Monica Airport have complained about noise from the aircraft taking off and landing, and they post signs asking pilots to fly quietly.
Ken Scarboro/KPCC

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On Tuesday, Santa Monica voters are choosing new city council members and playing a role in the elections of a new county supervisor and U.S. Representative. But one of the most contentious and expensive ballot battles in the city may decide the future of the Santa Monica Municipal Airport.

Pilots and jet owners, like actor Harrison Ford, love the Santa Monica Airport.  They see it as an economic engine and an important and convenient place to land and store a private plane.  But many residents of the neighborhoods around it hate the noise and jet fumes it generates.  

It's a debate that's continued for years, and it’s fair to say that the seven member Santa Monica City Council has sided more recently with the angry residents, who either want to shut the airport down, or at least cut back the traffic from larger jets. Earlier this year, the council voted unanimously to continue pursuing control of the airport land and begin looking at options for closing it after July of next year

When they head to the polls on Tuesday, Santa Monica voters will consider two competing airport ballot measures and decide who gets to call the shots at the controversial facility.

Measure D

With total campaign contributions topping $800,000, Measure D is backed by the National Business Aviation Association and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. The two national pro-aviation groups have kicked in more than a half a million dollars to support the measure, which would require a public vote before any major change at the airport is approved.

"I think it’s important for all of us as pilots to help the people of our community understand the basic issue here," said Christian Fry, a pilot, Santa Monica resident and member of the Santa Monica Airport Association. Fry was speaking at a town hall style forum organized by the supporters of Measure D.  "Do you want the future of this airport to be decided by seven people,  or do you think it has value for this to be a citywide debate?"

"The airport is important for the local community for its business impact, but also is part of a national network," said National Business Aviation Association President Ed Bolen at the same event. "At the present time, there's a lack of airport capacity in Southern California."  

Measure LC

Measure LC is the rival initiative and it's supported by the Committee for Local Control of Santa Monica Airport Land. Chairman John Fairweather lives in Sunset Park, the neighborhood adjacent to the airport to the north and west.  

Fairweather says Measure D will handcuff the Santa Monica City Council, not just on whether or not to close the airport, but other changes. For an example, he points to a lawsuit filed against the city  a year after a plane landing at the airport crashed into a hangar, killing four people on board. As the Santa Monica Mirror reported, the lawsuit says the hangar was built too close to the runway.

"If the city were to say, 'Okay, we have to take that hangar away, we have to move the hangar,' that’s a change to aviation land: the city would have to have a general election to fix that problem,” says Fairweather.  

So Fairweather’s group backs Measure LC. It would give the Santa Monica City Council authority to manage the airport and even to close part or all of it; but a public vote would still be required to approve any commercial development of airport land.

Fairweather says his group has raised around $130,000 to support Measure LC, and they're not surprised at being outspent by the campaign for Measure D.

"It's the many versus the money, and we have to win," he says.

The vote will take place against the backdrop of Santa Monica's ongoing battle with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for control over the airport's land. The agency has maintained that previous agreements obligate Santa Monica to operate the airport "in perpetuity," and so far, the federal courts have backed up the FAA.