If You Can’t Build It, They Won’t Come

With rhythmic regularity of the tides, the Los Angeles Times has again brought us the familiar dispatch that a plucky airline – this time United Airlines – that had given it a shot, has thrown in the towel and suspended operations at the – ta-da! – Los Angeles Intercontinental Airport, thus joining SkyWest, America West and God knows how many other smaller outfits that at one time or another have tried to operate their aircraft at that location, only to realize that it wasn’t feasible.

You haven’t heard about the Los Angeles Intercontinental Airport? Sure you have. You probably think of it – if you think of it at all — as the Palmdale Regional Airport, to use its current nom de guerre. But we old timers remember how your city boldly went where no man had gone before, or more accurately, where no rational, sentient being would think of going, and attempted to establish a major commercial airport — the Los Angeles Intercontinental Airport — in the middle of nowhere. In the 1970s the City of Los Angeles Airport Department decided to relieve pressure on growing LAX by establishing a new airport. Standing alone that sounded reasonable, but considered in context, it was an act of lunacy. To begin with, the chosen site in Palmdale is located in the high desert, over 60 miles from Los Angeles, with no direct freeway connecting it with the population centers that would presumably be served by it. Not to worry, said the city; a high-speed rail line would be built to take care of that little detail. Alas, the feds failed to ptovide funding and the high-speed railroad never made it.

Then there was the proximity to the next-door Air Force experimental flight test facilities at Plant 42 and Edwards Air Force Base, and the flyboys were not crazy about the idea of hot shot fighter jockeys doing their thing in untried, experimental planes next to the paths of big, commercial airliners, especially in a populated area. See Gilliland v. County of Los Angeles, 126 Cal.App.3d 610, 613 (1981). The local climate didn’t help either. It gets hot in the high desert and the air pressure is lower at higher temperatures and altitudes. We won’t get into all that Boyle’s law stuff here, and will confine ourselves to observing only that it may be a good idea to refrain from trying to lift off in a fully loaded, and fully tanked-up 747 headed for the Far East when the ambient temperature is over 100 degrees and the runway is 2600 feet above sea level.

And did we mention the brilliant idea that for a while it was thought that an “Intercontinental” Airport in Palmdale would be just the thing to accommodate the coming SST — the Super Sonic Transport. That one didn’t work out either. Its American designers sensibly concluded that its expensive technology and limited payload capacity would never justify its cost. So they said “thanks, but no thanks,” and so the French and British built the Concorde, which was able to use LAX. Chalk up another grand idea that didn’t get off the ground. Which is just as well because the time consumed travelling by car from Palmdale to Beverly Hills, would take nearly as long as a trans-Artlantic flight at supersonic speeds. Although, some people do prefer to travel by car or even in their own camper van as you get to absorb all of the scenery and your surroundings. That’s why more people are looking into motorhome training (in the UK) as instead of having to pay more money buy stopping at hotels, they can just sleep over in their transport.

But none of that stopped the intrepid folks at the Los Angeles Department of Airports. Starting in the early 1970s they began acquiring land near Palmdale for the “Intercontinental” airport. If you want to know how they went about is, read Stone v. City of Los Angeles, 51 Cal.App.3d 987 (1975). They would announce their intention to acquire land in the area, then file condemnation actions but refrain from serving them in the hope that the delay and associated uncertainty would lower values and enable them to pick up some bargains from distressed property owners. But that didn’t work out either. To the city’s consternation, in 1972 the California Supreme Court had decided Klopping v. City of Whittier, 8 Cal.3d 39, holding that for a would-be condemnor to depress property values in anticipation of condemnation is a constitutional no-no. Rats! Now the city had to pay not only the undiminished fair market value of the land it took for the “Intercontinental” airport, but also damages for the owners’ lost of interim use of their land.

Altogether, the city acquired between 17,000, and 17,750 acres of land, at the cost of some $100 million. And keep in mind that those were early 1970s dollars, which means that to adjust them to today you would have to multiply that sum by four or maybe five. So that in today’s dollars, somewhere in the neighborhood of a half a billion of your (or your Dad’s) hard-earned tax dollars went for the acquisition of a giant, nine by five mile swath of high desert land that had all the utility of the proverbial mammary glands on a bull. And as if that were not enough, the city had to pay taxes to the county, which at the time came to $750,000 per year – a figure that tends to add up to millions before you know it.

So what happened to all that land? We’re glad you asked. It’s sitting there, performing the vital function of holding the rest of the earth together. The city leased most of it to pistachio growers and some sheepherders – not exactly what you think of as highest and best use when someone says “Intercontinental” Airport.

The moral of it all: If you can’t build it, they won’t come, no matter how much of the taxpayers’ money you waste in the process.

UPDATE: This is not a news item directly related to eminent domain, but it does tell us about L.A. Airport Department’s handling of public money. The Los Angelse Times (Dan Weikel, Feds Probe L.A. Agency’s Allocation of $40 Million to Vistor’s Bureau, Oct. 8, 2008, at p. B2) reports that the feds (who provide federal airport aid to LA) are conducting an audit, and have discovered that LA has passed on some $6.8 million in federal airport funds to a private, non-profit outfit that promotes tourism in L.A. Mind you, we have nothing against tourists. “Keep California Green and Golden. Bring money,” has been our slogan for some time, but it’s hard to see why federal funds should be spent in this way. Particularly if you reflect on the fact that those wonderful folks who run LA Airports once threatened to shut down LAX — yes, they did — if the California Supreme Court did not deny compensation to homeowners whose homes were impacted by airport operations.

Nor is LA alone. “On a national level, a congressional study of 33 major airports in the mid-1990s found that $252 million in airport revenues had been diverted from 13 of them to pay for local government programs.” Id.

Your tax money at work.