WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee is expected to approve a measure today that would prohibit commercial aviation service at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
Rep. C. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) quietly introduced the measure last week and said that its enactment would fulfill his longstanding campaign promise to keep El Toro from being used to reduce overcrowding at John Wayne Airport.
"The people of the district have made it abundantly clear they do not want joint (commercial-military) use at El Toro," Cox said. "Time after time, in public forums during the (1988) election campaign . . . I've said no joint use at El Toro. That's what (the voters) wanted to hear, and that's what we're doing."
Cox's proposal will probably clear the House of Representatives if the Armed Services Committee, as expected, attaches it as an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill, congressional sources said. Whether it will become law probably will depend on its acceptance by the House-Senate conference committee, whose members will be appointed to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
In seeking the action, Cox is asking Congress to help resolve a key element in the 20-year-old local battle over expansion of John Wayne Airport and efforts to find an alternative site for commercial aviation. El Toro base, which some have advocated as an alternative to John Wayne Airport, is located in Cox's central Orange County congressional district.
Cox conceded in an interview that this step may not be popular with everyone. It is "not an issue without controversy," he said.
Cox's preemptive strike against joint use of El Toro, accomplished with the aid of Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), a member of the Armed Services Committee, drew heated reaction from Newport Beach officials and members of a private group of civic leaders that is evaluating sites for a new county airport.
"I believe that any type of legislation that would short-circuit the grass-roots effort is very, very counterproductive," Newport Beach City Manager Robert L. Wynn said.
"It just doesn't seem to me to be the proper thing to do. I'm disappointed that he (Cox) did that," said Clarence J. Turner, a Newport Beach city councilman who is vice president of the Airport Site Coalition. "I'd like to see all of these sites evaluated on a fair and equal basis."
The coalition, formed several years ago as part of a court settlement that permitted expansion of John Wayne Airport, is due to release its recommendations in about six months on sites for new commercial aviation facilities in Orange County. El Toro base is among the locations under consideration, Turner said.
The reaction to Cox's initiative was decidedly different from the leader of an opposing group that is fighting plans to bring commercial aviation to El Toro base.
"Hallelujah!" exclaimed Sally Anne Sheridan, an Irvine city councilwoman who heads the Coalition for a Responsible Airport Solution. "The significance for Irvine and all the surrounding cities is that we will not have to be fighting the battle of joint use."
The Cox measure initially was introduced as a separate bill on June 20. With Dornan's help, the bill was attached as an amendment to the massive 1990 defense authorization bill by the readiness subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee. Aides expect the full committee to approve the bill today without significant debate.
"Regardless of the merits of the issue, just from a political standpoint, it's a very impressive feat," Orange County Washington lobbyist James F. McConnell said of Cox's maneuver.
Debate over the proposed use of El Toro for commercial flights has been building for many years.
The military and city officials from communities such as Irvine that are next to the Marine base strongly oppose any commercial use, contending that it would interfere with the base's military mission, create terrible traffic problems and endanger lives.
Officials from Newport Beach, which borders John Wayne Airport, assert that using El Toro for commercial flights would reduce overcrowding and noise at the county's only major commercial air passenger facility.
The battle took an unusual twist in December, 1987, when a Michigan congressman who had frequently been at loggerheads with former Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach), who preceded Cox, persuaded Congress to order the Federal Aviation Administration to study joint use of the El Toro base.
In a report released the following May, the FAA concluded that joint use was "feasible," but stopped short of adopting a recommendation.
"We saw this done to us in the opposite way (in 1987)," Cox said. "So what's fair, is fair. . . . I've now spent a year talking to people all over the 40th Congressional District, and the areas most affected by this, Irvine and Laguna Hills, will never stand for joint use. Therefore, as a political matter, it ought to come off the table."