Superior Court Judge Philip E. Schwab on Friday ordered Orange County to halt all work on a $150-million expansion plan for John Wayne Airport, reserving the right to roll back jet departures to 41 daily unless the county wins court approval for environmental studies supporting the expansion.
By the end of the day, all engineering and planning work for the new airport master plan had been halted, and county officials were left uncertain about the next step in their legal fight to construct a new 6-million-square-foot terminal and other facilities to handle up to 73 jet departures daily at the airport.
Also suspended were preparations to offer sound-insulation and purchase-assurance programs to residents of Santa Ana Heights--the small community near the departure end of John Wayne's runways--who say they can no longer bear the sound of overflying jets. Assistance programs could have been available to those residents as early as February, 1986, if funding applications could have proceeded on schedule, county officials said.
"As of today, we have stopped all activity, per the judge's order, until we get further clarification," said airport manager Murry Cable.
Newport Beach officials were jubilant over the order--a tentative one, which cannot become final until sometime next month--though they may have lost their attempt to have the airport environmental studies reviewed in state court. Schwab ruled only that the studies had to be reviewed by a court "of competent jurisdiction," and that could include the federal court, which the county has asked to take sole jurisdiction over the airport expansion issue.
Newport Beach did not ask the judge to set aside the limited expansion that took effect April 1, when jet flights were expanded from 41 daily to 55, citing the "inconvenience to the traveling public" that would occur if the already-booked flights were canceled. Schwab did not order a rollback, but he reserved the right to do so if necessary in order to enforce his order, which found county officials in contempt of a 1982 court injunction limiting jet flights to 41 a day.
"I'm deeply disappointed, and I don't think I've ever been more disappointed at an airport matter since even before I was a supervisor," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas F. Riley, who lives beneath the airport flight path in Newport Beach.
Riley said he was primarily concerned with the judge's order to halt plans to assist Santa Ana Heights residents, whom he characterized as victims in the airport expansion battle.
"A travesty of justice cries out here in the fact that those people have been forced to be a pawn between the Board of Supervisors and the City of Newport Beach in their own inability to fend for themselves," he said.
Moreover, Newport Beach didn't make any substantial gains as a result of the court's decision, Riley said. "Why should they be happy? We have the same number of flights, the same number of people, the same damn traffic, and maybe more. I don't see any winners except the judge, and if that's the case, then so be it."
Pierce O'Donnell, Newport Beach's special airport counsel, said after the hearing: "We are ecstatic today that Judge Schwab has ruled in our favor and has brought to an immediate halt all activities related to expansion of the airport . . . . No planning, no engineering . . . they can put down their pencils as they did in 1982, because they've been stopped."
Newport Beach Councilwoman Evelyn Hart said she was "delighted" with the ruling. Continued planning and engineering work on the master plan tends to commit the county to pursuing the master plan it has selected, rather than selecting another, less environmentally damaging alternative, she said.
"You do end up giving a certain amount of commitment to a project if you're working on it. Maybe not legally, but just morally, you obligate yourself."
Whether or not Newport Beach lost in its attempt to have the environmental impact report heard in state court--a forum city officials believe would be more protective of state environmental laws--was not clear.
Although Schwab left the county free to have the federal courts review the impact report along with issues of federal law related to the expansion plan, the timing constraints imposed by the order to stop planning and engineering work could mean that the county will go to whatever court can hear the case most quickly, said Michael Gatzke, the county's special airport counsel.
Moreover, Newport Beach could persuade U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter Jr., who has issued a preliminary injunction against new litigation over the environmental report in state court, to lift the injunction and allow Schwab to decide on the adequacy of the report. An appeal by the county or an attempt to persuade Schwab to modify his order before it becomes final in the next few weeks are also options, Gatzke said.