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Orange County Perspective : Newly Unveiled Options Take El Toro Debate to New Realm : 3 Plans Offer More Details, Heighten Divisiveness

April 21, 1996

Much of the noisy debate over the future of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station has taken place in a vacuum and, for all its fervor, been short on specifics. For that reason, perhaps, the April 12 release of three preliminary proposals ought to provide some much-needed focus and clarity to the discussion. Moreover, the anticipated use of these options as a basis for an environmental impact study for the 4,700-acre base ought to provide further evidence that the county at last is entering an era of specifics instead of generalizations.

Nevertheless, there can be no denying the likely divisiveness of the proposals that have been thrown into the mix. They arrive just weeks after voters in Orange County rejected an initiative designed to kill any effort to create a commercial airport at El Toro. One good question, by the way, is why they weren't made available sooner, before voters went to the polls.

It's not that the county hasn't had divisiveness already in the two initiatives over the issue of a commercial airport. But two of these new proposals would, on first analysis, seem to produce very clear winners and losers. Accordingly, they appear to be an invitation to an all-out battle over the future of the base.

One of the options would transform El Toro into a major international airport, with takeoffs and landings around the clock and with the eventual goal of converting the existing John Wayne Airport into a general aviation facility.

This proposal seems likely to drive an even deeper wedge between Newport Beach, which long has had anxiety about flights out of John Wayne, and South County, which would become the focus of passenger air traffic in the county. And it would possibly do so on a scale that would appear to validate the deepest fears of the core group of supporters of last month's failed Measure S, the anti-airport initiative.

The second option does the reverse. It would make for a cargo and general aviation facility at El Toro, handling 960,000 tons of cargo a year, but it would assume that John Wayne Airport would be expanded to serve 15 million passengers a year. In accomplishing this, it well could inflame the core Newport Beach constituency that for years has been battling to keep a lid on the number of flights.

On the matter of the timing of the reports' release after, and not before, the Measure S voting in March: Surely voters would like to have this information earlier. One of the difficulties in having a concrete debate over that ballot measure was that so much of the rationale on both sides of the initiative was clouded by a lack of specificity. Many voters in Orange County were, effectively, making a decision in an information vacuum--uncertain, for example, whether they would be deciding on a cargo air facility with limited use at El Toro or the kind of full-drill international airport that is envisioned in the new first option.

The imposition of the first option, accordingly, would almost certainly aggravate existing mistrust and hostility between surrounding communities and Newport Beach and lead to further prolonged litigation and bad feeling. The second option seems to have a basis for acceptance in South County but would require more sacrifice from Newport Beach.

The third option provides for John Wayne expansion but also focuses more on a school or university campus, compatible educational facilities and visitor-oriented attractions, such as a theme park, sports complex or horse racing track. There are other proposed uses, such as an equestrian center, a golf course, an expanded Irvine Transportation Center and a center for automobile design, testing and racing.

Perhaps there is some satisfaction to be found in Supervisor Marian Bergeson's conclusion: "This is the beginning of a long process." The best news in these proposals may be that many of the ideas that have been orbiting in abstraction are gathered into a document that, at last, will serve the beginning of the concrete discussion.

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