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LOCAL ELECTIONS / MEASURE A : El Toro Airport Is Apparent Winner, but . . . : Backers are ready for action after narrow victory. However, there's no guarantee that a lawsuit or Pentagon plans won't kill the project.

November 10, 1994|H.G REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County voters have apparently cleared the runway for a new commercial airport at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, but it is uncertain how soon--if ever--the plan will take off.

After months of inconclusive debate and competing ideas for the 4,700-acre base scheduled to be closed by 1999, voters stepped in and narrowly approved a referendum mandating that the county earmark 2,000 acres for an airport.

With a winning margin of only 15,103 votes, it is still possible that the outcome could change once election officials finish counting about 48,000 absentee ballots, Registrar of Voters Donald Tanney said. That process may take until next Wednesday.

Convinced that Tuesday's result will stand, however, airport boosters left no doubt what they now expect.

"The public has spoken," said Newport Beach developer George Argyros, an architect of the Measure A referendum, and he expressed confidence that county supervisors will follow through. "It is incumbent upon the board to listen to what the people said and act accordingly," he said.

But the future of the military base remains in limbo, and political divisions within the county appear likely to persist. One city, Lake Forest, promises to sue next week to have the measure declared illegal. The Pentagon said the vote would have no effect on what the U.S. government does with the property.

County politicians also find themselves in a fix, nervous about spiting the voters but hopeful of sticking to a planning process for the base's future--a scheme that itself was forged only after months of rancor that, like Measure A, largely split Orange County between North and South.

County officials said the supervisors will now have to decide what to do with the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, the official agency formed in March to establish a development plan for the base. The initiative does not require the dismantling of the agency.

In addition, board members will also have to decide whether the initiative can legally force the county to build a commercial airport at El Toro. Earlier this year, the supervisors' own attorney advised that the planning agency is free to ignore Measure A, approved with 51.1% of the vote.

The agency is the only one recognized by the Pentagon to submit a reuse plan to the U.S. government for converting the Marine base to civilian use. It recently received $730,000 in federal funds.

Supervisors will discuss the initiative's mandate at Tuesday's meeting, where members will debate several options for implementing the measure and keeping the planning process going, said Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder. One of the options calls for the supervisors themselves to assume planning responsibilities for the Marine base, she added.

Wieder, who supported Measure A, said that "it's a little premature to say what's going to happen."

"Is (the county planning authority) out of the picture now? I can't say right now what's going to happen," said Wieder. "There will be several proposals before the board next week."

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Meanwhile, a Pentagon spokesman said the U.S. government is not bound by the measure.

"As far as we're concerned, we're dealing only with the official reuse authority created to come up with a reuse plan for the base," the Pentagon's Glenn Flood said on Wednesday.

"We will only consider the recommendations for development presented to us by that authority. If they (the authority) want an airport there, we'll consider it. But a law requiring an airport there is not binding on the federal government."

The county agency is made up of nine members: the five supervisors, three representatives from Irvine and one from Lake Forest. However, the initiative calls for a 13-member advisory commission to work with federal, state and local agencies and the air cargo industry in developing a commercial airport at El Toro.

The county counsel's memo on July 22 does not specifically address the county agency's future under Measure A, but it advised County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider that the agency can choose to ignore the initiative if members want. So it is possible that the county may have two agencies drafting separate development plans for El Toro.

The memo said the county agency may also be disbanded upon passage of the initiative, if the agency or the supervisors decide to do that.

Argyros said he is familiar with the county counsel memo and dismissed it as self-serving.

Another major sticking point is what to do about Irvine's and Lake Forest's roles in the planning process for El Toro. The councils of both cities oppose an airport there, and the supervisors will now have to decide whether the two municipalities should maintain their roles in the process.

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Argyros said airport proponents were forced to put the initiative on the ballot because the current county planning authority, which includes Irvine and Lake Forest, is biased against the airport.

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