SANTA ANA — In the most critical vote so far on the future of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, the Orange County Planning Commission endorsed an environmental impact report that portrays a major international airport as the best use for the base.
The 4-1 vote Thursday followed more than five hours of testimony split almost evenly between supporters who called the 35-volume report a thorough analysis and opponents who labeled it a fraudulent document that ignores their concerns about noise, safety and other issues.
With the exception of just one commissioner, who lives under the proposed airport's flight paths, the influential panel said the report properly addresses a variety of issues at this early stage in the base reuse planning process.
"I think they've done a magnificent job," Planning Commissioner E. "Chuck" McBurney said.
Commissioner Clarice A. Blamer said the commission's job was to decide "whether this EIR is adequate for this point in the process," and that it was.
Commissioner Tom Moody of Laguna Niguel grilled the county's consultants on their conclusions about noise and air pollution. Finding the explanations wanting and the report too speculative, he cast the sole vote against the report.
"I realize there are things that need to be addressed down the line," Moody said. But he added that he was troubled by the size of the project, and wondered whether it would require wide-scale soundproofing of homes or mass condemnations of property.
"We don't know any of that now," he said.
The decision came a day after the Orange County Airport Commission and the El Toro Citizens Advisory Commission finished their reviews and urged that county decision-makers move ahead with a plan that could result in one of the nation's largest international airports after the military closes the base by 1999.
The Planning Commission's voice is seen as the most important among the three commissions because of its expertise in environmental and planning issues. The vote now sends the report to the County Board of Supervisors, which will act on the airport plan sometime in December.
Comments by the public Thursday were supposed to be technical in nature, as airport foes challenged the report's completeness. But the emotion that has long marked the El Toro debate also was present.
Laguna Niguel Councilman Mark Goodman said the report was so shoddy that those who wrote it "should be ashamed to put their names on the document."
A 91-year-old resident of the Laguna Hills area said, "I can see my last years in Leisure World ruined."
The meeting drew the largest turnout to date of airport supporters, who have twice carried countywide elections backing an El Toro airport but who have rarely attended hearings on the reuse of the base.
All three commissions approved the report but called for further study of the issues that opponents worry most about: how to control noise, traffic and pollution and answer the safety concerns of residents living near the base or under proposed flight paths. The commissions also urged consideration of limiting night flights and the impact an airport would have on real estate values.
Irvine residents concerned about noise received several key concessions from the county as a result of weeks of complaints from residents and concerns expressed by county officials.
The base reuse will abide by projections for a noise pattern, which would mean steering flights over nonresidential areas. And an airport at El Toro would not pursue takeoffs to the west over Irvine, officials said.
That still places the county in position to do battle with a national pilots union, which has questioned the safety of easterly takeoffs.
The report in question, produced by county staff at John Wayne Airport and the Environmental Management Agency, along with hired consultants, analyzed three reuse options:
* An international passenger-cargo airport capable of serving up to 38.3 million annual passengers, surrounded by compatible uses. This would keep John Wayne open just for general aviation needs.
* A cargo-general aviation airport, surrounded by compatible uses. This would expand John Wayne airport for commercial passenger travel.
* Nonaviation, mixed uses, including a visitor-oriented attraction and institutional or educational facility, such as a college campus, surrounded by residential and recreational areas and land for light industrial businesses and research and development.
What to do with the surplus military base is the most sweeping planning issue facing the county and easily the most hotly debated.
Supporters say an airport would bring jobs, help the economy and offer travelers convenience.
Opponents say planes flying overhead around the clock would destroy their home values and make their lives miserable. The environmental impact report, they argue, has glossed over their concerns.