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Santa Monica sues for control over historic California airport

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The city of Santa Monica filed a lawsuit on Thursday to wrest control of its municipal airport from the federal government, marking the latest chapter in a decades-long dispute over the future of the historic general aviation hub.

Filed against the Federal Aviation Administration in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the suit comes weeks after the fiery crash-landing of a small business jet killed four people and reignited a debate over safety at the 86-year-old facility.

Critics of the airport, where various Hollywood celebrities and show business executives keep their private planes, seized on the September 29 wreck as a wake-up call to hazards they say the facility poses to densely populated surrounding communities.

The crash occurred about 150 feet from homes nearest the airport in the seaside town west of Los Angeles.

The site's unusually close proximity to homes stems from a real estate boom that coincided with the airport's development during and after World War Two, when the property was leased to the U.S. government and Douglas Aircraft Co. expanded its airplane manufacturing there.

The property was turned back to the city after the war, but the FAA has insisted that the city must keep the site open as an airport in perpetuity, under the terms of the 1948 transfer agreement.

Santa Monica officials said they are challenging the FAA claims as unconstitutional and seeking a court declaration that the city holds clear title to the airport property, which some local groups have long sought to convert into a public park.

FAA officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying they do not discuss pending litigation as a matter of policy.

Homeowners and municipal officials have battled for decades to curb flight activity at Santa Monica Municipal Airport or to close it altogether, facing stiff opposition from the FAA, aircraft owners, pilots and businesses connected with the site.

The contingent of well-heeled, celebrity aircraft owners said to have kept planes there include Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

In addition to neighborhood objections to noise and air pollution, city officials have complained the airport's single 5,000-foot (1,524-meter) runway is too short to safely accommodate some of the larger, faster jets allowed to take off and land there.

The Santa Monica City Council adopted a resolution in 1981 seeking to close the airport when legally possible, triggering an FAA lawsuit. The parties later settled in a deal the Santa Monica officials say obligates the city to keep the airport open only through 2015.

The FAA has taken the position that the city is required to keep operating the airport until at least 2023 under assurances it gave in exchange for federal airport improvement grants.

The FAA also asserts that the city must keep the airport open indefinitely because it acquired the property cost-free from the government after World War Two under terms of the federal Surplus Property Act. (By Steve Gorman; Editing by Paul Simao)

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