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Developers Feud Over Need for El Toro Airport

November 05, 1994|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Argyros and William Lyon, two prominent Orange County developers who once co-owned a California airline, are now feuding publicly over Tuesday's countywide vote on putting a commercial airport at the Marine Corps base at El Toro.

Lyon, once California's biggest home-builder, has taken out a full-page ad in Sunday's Times Orange County Edition pointing to Argyros as "the man behind Measure A" and saying proponents of a commercial airport at El Toro are "chasing a fool's dream" and are misleading voters with "half-truths and distortions."

Argyros, who is bankrolling the Measure A campaign favoring an El Toro airport, fired back Friday, saying, "The only fool I can think of right now is poor Bill."

In a "memorandum to Orange County voters and taxpayers," Lyon complained that he was finally speaking out on the issue, because he was "tired of seeing half-truths and distortions spread about the nonexistent benefits of this dangerous (ballot) initiative."

Argyros said the real reason Lyon is opposing Measure A is because he has a financial interest in blocking any competition with John Wayne Airport, where he owns Martin Aviation.

"He's a wonderful guy and (was) a good business partner. But I think he's losing it," Argyros said. Countered Lyon: "On this subject, George has already lost it. It's very clear that George wants an airport there. The only thing nobody can figure out is why."

The two men bought AirCal when the airline was in bankruptcy in 1981. After running it as partners for six years, they sold the company to American Airlines for $225 million, earning about $90 million in the deal. Lyon went on to multiply his fortune by building single-family homes, while Argyros made millions from apartment complexes.

Both profited from the real estate boom of the 1980s, and in 1991 they both were on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 richest people in America--Lyon ranking No. 295 with a net worth of $350 million, Argyros at No. 382 with a net worth of $290 million. Declining real estate values, however, pushed both men off the list in 1992.

In Sunday's newspaper ad, Lyon says "I'm running this advertisement . . . to tell you that George Argyros is wrong" in pushing for the conversion of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station into a commercial airport.

He accuses airport proponents of dodging the truth about the proposed airport's costs, safety and economic benefits, along with the ability of John Wayne Airport to cope with Orange County's future aviation needs.

"The fact is, Measure A could cost taxpayers billions. Without billions to meet even the most minimal safety standards, El Toro would be a dangerous--even deadly--commercial airport. Yes, airports generate jobs, but not as many jobs as other potential uses for the land. The fact is, John Wayne Airport operates today at half of its real capacity . . . and can handle our air traffic needs for many, many years to come."

Several times during a telephone interview, Argyros insisted that he and Lyon are friends, and "I feel badly that he's taken this position. I really feel that he should know better. I'm really surprised he's not more careful with the facts. I think he's really misinformed."

Argyros suggested that Lyon was giving in to subtle pressure from members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, the landlord for Lyon's Martin Aviation company. "Martin is dependent on the Board of Supervisors for help. (Lyon) has obligated himself to put improvements at John Wayne. The more traffic he can get at John Wayne, the better off Martin Aviation is," Argyros said.

Lyon, too, said he and Argyros remain friends. And he said his opposition to Measure A stems not from any personal stake in John Wayne Airport, but from experience he gained during his 35-year career in the Air Force, from which he retired as a major general, and his concern that taxpayers were being misled.

"George has been cajoling me for months about supporting his position. As I watched this campaign evolve, I began to understand that the public was not getting the whole story. I began with a neutral position on this race, but not anymore," Lyon said.

Lyon said he is not necessarily against an airport at El Toro.

"I'm not saying I'm opposed to an international airport there, but only if it goes through the (county planning) system. If we're going to put an airport there, it should be through a process where everybody can be heard and all options discussed," said Lyon, adding that he is a firm supporter of the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, the county agency formed to organize a development plan for the Marine base. The agency is studying several development options, including an airport.

Lyon said Argyros and other backers of Measure A "are chasing a fool's dream of an airport that would be unsafe, poorly planned, too expensive and not needed."

Argyros argues that Orange County needs a new international airport at El Toro in order to compete in the global economy in the 21st Century.

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