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A Nagging Source of Contention: Reuse Report

Foes of a commercial airport say they distrust the findings on noise and traffic; supporters call the concerns exaggerated.


Lake Forest homeowner Joyce Zacher says she's only asking for the truth. So far, she doesn't think she has it.

What she does have is more than 5,000 pages of technical analysis that, she contends, highlight the benefits of a proposed passenger-cargo airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station while glossing over the negatives.

Zacher and other South County residents who live near the military base or under its flight paths are livid over the thick Draft Environmental Impact Report that they believe comes to an eyebrow-raising conclusion: The best way to control noise, traffic and pollution at El Toro is to build what would today be the fifth-largest international airport in the United States.

"It's almost as if they think we're unintelligent people, that they can stand there telling us how much cleaner the air will be, how much less noise there will be," said Zacher, who has been closely following Orange County's plan to reuse the 4,700-acre base when the military abandons it in mid-1999 as part of budget-cutting efforts to close less-vital military bases. "At first I tried to keep an open mind, I really did. But I no longer can. It's gone too far."

Three months before the Orange County Board of Supervisors makes the county's most critical planning decision in decades, dissension over the airport plan has shifted to the validity of the project's environmental analysis--on which the project's future hinges.

There's still time for county residents to voice their opinions on the draft document, and those comments will be included in the final version. Residents can attend a public hearing Wednesday in Irvine and submit written comments on the report before the Oct. 15 deadline. After that, residents can attend a series of public hearings to discuss the finalized study and the base reuse alternatives.

By Dec. 30, the county must submit the plan to the federal government, which will then make the final decision on whether to give the base to the county.

Of the three options under consideration--turning the base into a passenger-cargo airport, a cargo-general aviation airport or a mixed-use tourist attraction/educational campus--business interests and other supporters say a full-service airport would be best. They predict it would pump nearly $10 billion a year into the local economy and rival Los Angeles International Airport by venturing into lucrative Pacific Rim markets.

Airport supporters say they understand the fears of Zacher and others, but argue that those concerns are exaggerated. A properly developed and managed airport would be a good neighbor, they insist.

"Noise is going to reduce, traffic will be mitigated, and the biggest concern [South County residents] are going to have is how to spend the money from their property value increase," said David Ellis, spokesman for Citizens for Jobs and the Economy, a political group favoring an El Toro airport.

Opponents, who have lost two countywide elections and a legal challenge to block an airport, believe they are fighting for nothing less than their social and economic survival. The noise, pollution and traffic that they fear would accompany an El Toro airport--a facility five times the size of John Wayne Airport and larger than San Francisco International--would destroy their cherished quality of life and deflate their home values.

"There is no doubt that an airport is one of the most controversial land uses in an urban area," said J. Thomas Black of the Washington-based Urban Land Institute. "You'll never get full consensus on an issue like this. And the focus of the debate is the environmental impact report."


The Times conducted dozens of interviews with independent aviation consultants and academic experts specializing in airport issues, as well as South County residents, business people and government officials. The result: There remains sharp dispute, even among the experts, on virtually every point of the study.

One airport planning specialist consulted by The Times said he doubts the document's credibility because he thinks its most fundamental premise--that an El Toro airport would draw 38.3 million passengers a year--is dubious.

"I just don't see where they can get these figures from," said professor Richard de Neufville, chairman of the Technology and Policy Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He expressed surprise that the county has not offered harder evidence that airline carriers are willing to commit to an airport venture. "The issue here is, how can they be sure there is the demand for it? I don't see that happening."

As a result, de Neufville said he has serious reservations about the document's projections about traffic, noise and pollution and even flight patterns, which even the county and its consultants acknowledge rely on speculation about market and passenger demands 25 years into the future.

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