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Public Skeptical About El Toro's Future : Government: Poll shows 57% have little or no confidence that civic leaders can turn the base into an economic asset after closure.

September 22, 1993|GEBE MARTINEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A newly released public opinion poll has found that 57% of Orange County's residents have little or no confidence that local government will come up with a plan to convert the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station that will create jobs and stimulate the county's economy.

Only 9% of those surveyed said they had "a lot" of confidence that local government would come up with an economically beneficial plan, according to poll results released Tuesday by UC Irvine's School of Social Ecology.

Another 30% said they had "some" confidence, and 6% said they didn't have an opinion on the subject.

County residents were polled as part of the university's Orange County Annual Survey.

The pollsters said that recent haggling between county and city officials over control of the El Toro base appears to have undermined the confidence of many county residents in government's ability to get an economic boost from base conversion.

The same survey also found county residents split over whether the base should be developed into a commercial airport for passenger and cargo flights, with 48% favoring such a facility, 42% opposed and 10% undecided. The largest opposition to an airport was registered in South County--the area nearest the base--where 49% disapproved.

But airport proponents were encouraged by the poll results because 44% of the South County residents--a higher number than they expected--said they supported a commercial airport at El Toro, with 7% responding "don't know."

"These results should serve as a wake-up call to local government," said pollster Mark Baldassare, School of Social Ecology chairman. "Not only is the controversy affecting residents' confidence in local government, it also may affect their attitudes about the economic outlook for the county's future," already at a record low.

Cheryl Katz, a co-director of the survey, said local leaders should "see a clear message that they need to sit down and work it out. People are getting worried and people are getting upset and people are getting angry."

The results reflect the opinions of 1,007 adult residents interviewed Aug. 20 through Aug. 29. The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.

Given the recent feud between the county and a coalition of cities over control of the 4,700-acre site, most local politicians said they were not surprised that residents doubt their leadership.

"I don't blame them," said Irvine Councilman Barry J. Hammond, whose city is one of six in the South County that are challenging the county's claim to ultimate authority over the base redevelopment plan.

"Based upon past history, local governments haven't given (the public) a lot of reason for confidence," Hammond said.

Newport Beach Mayor Clarence J. Turner, who was among the first to support conversion of the Marine base to a commercial airport, said the survey underscores the need for everyone to begin working together.

"Until the plan comes together, and until someone emerges as the spokesperson and the leader for that reuse plan, I think there will continue to be confusion out there," Turner said.

But Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez took strong exception to the "spin" that pollsters were putting on the results. He said that 76% of the survey's respondents expressed a degree of confidence--"a lot, some (or) very little"--that government would come up with an economically beneficial plan, while only 18% had no confidence at all.

"A little is more than nothing in my book," Vasquez said.

Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, who heads the task force that the county wants to oversee base conversion plans, also took issue with the survey's findings, saying that county government officials have had little time to develop any plans.

"I'm feeling frustrated, but at the same time I have a feeling we are doing a pretty good job," Riley said. "I don't think people are aware of all the difficulties of the decision-making process. . . ."

Commenting on his survey results, Baldassare said residents do not appear to believe there is "a strong . . . connection between a new airport and improved prospects for job growth and prosperity. In addition, they may be skeptical that a new airport is needed here so soon after the expansion of the John Wayne Airport."

Airport proponents said the survey results show that South County residents can still be sold on an El Toro airport.

Garden Grove Councilman Mark Leyes, chairman of the three-city Orange County Regional Airport Authority, said, "Once those (pro-airport) arguments are presented, I think you are going to see some of that opposition soften a little, especially when you see opportunities for economic development."

But South County city leaders said airport proponents underestimate the hardened attitudes of residents who fear increased jet noise and a diminished quality of life if commercial operations move into El Toro.

The 49% disapproval rating "represents an experienced position," Laguna Niguel Councilwoman Patricia C. Bates said. "We know what it's like in terms of intrusion and the quality of life that an airport can bring with it."

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