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JAMES FLANIGAN ON SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

A Bullish Vote for the Future : El Toro Airport-Conversion Plan Is Key for Orange County

November 16, 1994|JAMES FLANIGAN

With a narrow vote and many misgivings, a future industrial power asserted itself last week.

Orange County voters approved a ballot proposal to turn El Toro Marine Corps Air Station into a major commercial airport when the Defense Department hands over the military facility in 1999.

Many residents--especially in Lake Forest, Laguna Hills and other south county communities adjacent to El Toro--were dismayed. With traffic already congested in the once semi-rural area of open fields and rolling canyons, they saw a future airport making Orange County more like its raucous neighbor to the north.

In the past, when "we're not L.A" was a guiding principle of Orange County life, the airport initiative would have been defeated.

But it passed last week because Orange County is now a diverse, high-tech manufacturing economy with growing trade connections to Asia and Latin America. The words we're not L.A. have a different meaning. "We need the airport to support our economic structure, in which job growth is more dependent on exports than is the case in Los Angeles" says James Doti, president of Chapman University in Orange.

For the record, Los Angeles County gets 22% of its $244 billion economic output from exports, compared to Orange County's 12.5% of its $66-billion gross county product. But Los Angeles' big economy is more diverse while Orange County at this stage is more like a Silicon Canyon, with business concentrated in computers and machinery, microchips and software and medical and scientific instruments--all of them benefiting from foreign markets and foreign investments.

So the voters decided to back the airport. And on Tuesday, Orange County's Board of Supervisors voted to disband the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, which the supervisors had set up to consider alternative uses for the military base. A new panel will be formed, not to consider alternatives but to plan for an airport on the 2,000 acres of Defense Department land that has served as a Marine airfield for 51 years.

Suburb no more. The decision marks a dividing line in Orange County's history, comparable to the 1988 defeat of a slow-growth initiative. No longer a bedroom suburb of Los Angeles, Orange County--population 2.6 million--must be recognized once and for all as a decentralized industrial-residential community.

It's a new kind of city, comparable to Fairfax County, Va., outside Washington or Gwinnett County, Ga., near Atlanta. These are fast-growing centers of knowledge industry, adjacent to large cities but independent of them. Orange County, in fact, has been a model of the breed as it has developed multiple centers, from the older Anaheim and Santa Ana to Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza complex to the Irvine Spectrum.

"The county has expanding industry and trade, a research university and good living accommodations. All it lacks is an international airport," says Dennis Aigner, dean of UC Irvine's graduate school of management.

The decision to build a major airport in addition to John Wayne Airport, which operates near capacity now and cannot be expanded, will shape the future of Southern California. For one thing, Orange County now sends 6 million passengers a year, plus considerable cargo, through Los Angeles International and another million passengers and cargo through Ontario and Long Beach airports.

One consequence of building a major airport at El Toro, near the Sand Canyon Road exit off Interstate 5, will be to discourage plans for a giant international airport in Palmdale. Southern California will not go the way of Denver, attempting to funnel long-distance passengers through a mega-airport far from city centers.

Rather, the Southland will be served by a number of airports, led by LAX--which can handle 55 million passengers--and including the converted George Air Force Base near Victorville, Norton Air Base in San Bernardino and March Field near Riverside.

In turn, this siting of airports near residential communities will push development of noise abatement and lower-emission engines.

Business in the region will continue to be decentralized; Orange County will compete for jobs and investment as the promise of El Toro nears reality.

"We'll show we're not just a gas station on the way from San Diego to L.A.," says Supervisor Harriett Wieder. Indeed, some business people speculate that with high-speed rail links, El Toro could handle airline passengers for San Diego County.

If all goes well, El Toro could be used for commercial cargo in 1999, with passenger facilities to follow by 2005. But that's a big if.

Aside from inevitable wrangles about noise restrictions, new roads and infrastructure, El Toro--like all military bases--is an environmental nightmare with decades of fuel and toxic chemicals in the soil.

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