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Is This a Fair Fight, or a Flight of Fancy?

September 29, 1996|DANA PARSONS

As unthinkable as it is to some people that Orange County is even considering an international airport, it shouldn't be. History should have prepared them for it. Far from being unthinkable that the issue is on the table, it was, in a sense, almost inevitable.

Now, hold on, South Countians--especially those of you who loathe the idea.

That doesn't mean that a world-class airport will be built when the Marines leave El Toro. The five county supervisors could lock arms on the airstrip, genuflect toward Saddleback Mountain and say that under no circumstances will they allow Orange County to be so markedly altered. It just means that a mega-airport and what it represents have been in the stars for a long time, for the simple reason that what made Orange County desirable so long ago still exists.

If it'll help, think of El Toro as just the latest entry on Orange County's historical continuum. Think of it as the point when "the future" is not about railroads or freeways, but 21st century global trade and travel.

I used the word "unthinkable" because it must sound that way to thousands of Orange Countians. Isn't an international airport exactly what the county doesn't want? Hasn't the county's identity largely been forged as the antithesis to what ails America's metropolises, most notably that city to the north? Doesn't a huge airport complex put it on that same path?

The answer to the last question must be, yes. An international airport would once and for all end the notion that Orange County is a pastoral sanctuary from urban America.

Tim Casey is Laguna Niguel's city manager and widely regarded as a thoughtful, heads-up public official. A partisan opponent of a major airport at El Toro, he says: "I'm a migrant from L.A. County. As a city manager up there for nine years, when I looked for my next professional opportunity, I was looking at things that were not only challenging and stimulating professionally, but . . . a better environment to move our family and raise our daughter. Laguna Niguel specifically and South Orange County generally seemed like an excellent place to relocate. And part of that was that it was so unlike L.A. County. Lower densities, much more open space and recreational areas, and a lot of us came here because we hoped it wouldn't become like L.A. County or city. Some would suggest the proposition of a major cargo or commercial airport is exactly what we moved from."

And yet, I would argue, it's what Orange County has always been moving toward--even if it didn't know it.

Like all of Southern California, Orange County was so appealing that 19th century land promoters advertised that they were selling "the climate . . . we're throwing in the land as extra."

By the late 1880s, the railroads came. Land that had been held by Spanish dons and Mexican ranch owners was bought up by Anglo entrepreneurs. In the early 20th century, the Metropolitan Water District converted the area from one of dry farming and limited residences to one that could support multiple crops and limitless homes. The march of history was in gear.

Joe Osterman's ancestors settled in the 1890s in an area now known as Rancho Santa Margarita. Now a Whittier resident, Osterman has written a history of the Saddleback Valley where he grew up. From way back, Osterman says, many Orange Countians resisted urbanization.

"If James Irvine had his way . . . he definitely didn't see houses and civilization as progress at all," Osterman says of the land baron who reluctantly sold his bean fields to the government when it wanted to build the Marine base at El Toro.

But in the last half of this century, factions developed. While some wanted to preserve its pastoral past, Osterman says, others "saw the handwriting on the wall--this economic opportunity--and said, 'Let's go for it.' "

Today, airports represent that opportunity.

Eliot Cutler, partner in a Washington-Denver law firm that specializes in environmental, land-use and transportation law, says it's almost axiomatic that large airports generate revenue and spur local economies.

"The only exceptions, literally the only ones," Cutler says, "have been in cases where the airport was so mistakenly located that the growth and activity has never taken place."

Cutler has represented both unhappy residents and airport-eager cities and has won battles on both sides. What makes airport disputes so intense, he says, is that the benefits are enjoyed by a large number of people, but the burdens are borne disproportionately by a relative few--those living near the airport.

You don't need to tell that to residents in Irvine, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo, Laguna Niguel and Laguna Hills, who on two airport-related ballot issues since 1994 have voted much differently than northern Orange County cities. And lost both times.

Which prompts Casey to offer his own history lesson about El Toro: "If nothing else, it is contributing to this continuing divide between north and south," he says.

The El Toro battle is far from over.

Casey, who doesn't consider an airport inevitable, talks about "hearing the crickets at night" nowadays after the F-18s have completed their flyovers and wonders what nighttime will sound like if there's a 24-hour commercial and cargo airport in place of the military base.

But what about the march of history? Do you feel like you're fighting progress, I asked him.

"No," Casey says. "I don't feel guilty, because I'm not sure every urban area needs to support a major international commercial airport. I would feel more guilty buying into the argument without a lot more questions."

This is a defining moment for Orange County, not unlike when bean fields were surrendered for freeways. Another "inevitable" moment has arrived. The question now is whether, for one of the few times in the county's history, what seems inevitable is enviable.

Or, if you're a typical South Countian, stoppable.

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