SANTA ANA — Poised to take a critical step toward reshaping Orange County's future, a divided Board of Supervisors neared a vote late Tuesday on whether to proceed with a bitterly disputed plan to put an international airport at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
Supervisors endured more than 10 hours of often emotional debate that saw growth-minded business leaders square off against homeowners fearful of losing their quality of life.
The expected swing vote, board Chairman Roger R. Stanton, hinted earlier in the day that he might vote to approve a controversial environmental impact report on the project to keep the planning process alive. He had previously expressed concerns over the airport's impact on South County neighborhoods.
"This is not a final decision, but it's a directive for further analysis," Stanton said at the hearing that drew about 700 people from throughout the county. "Any action today is subject to modification."
Going into the meeting, it appeared Supervisors Jim Silva and William G. Steiner were lined up behind the airport while Supervisor Don Saltarelli indicated his reservations and Supervisor Thomas W. Wilson had stated his vehement opposition.
As far back as the 1960s, visionaries toyed with the idea of someday converting the 4,700-acre military base into a commercial service. The base was built during World War II and some of the county's most renowned planned communities later grew up around it.
But few believed it possible until the military decided in 1993 to close the base as a cost-saving measure.
While a final decision on a base reuse plan is still years away, the board's anticipated action would put the county on track to develop an airport that could forever change the landscape and, according to airport supporters, redefine Orange County in the 21st century by making it an international gateway.
Driving the airport plan is Measure A, a ballot initiative Orange County voters narrowly passed in 1994 that changed the county's master plan and calls for developing an airport unless it is deemed infeasible. The measure was upheld in another vote earlier this year.
The reuse of El Toro has been one of the most volatile and divisive issues in county history, pitting North County residents who support it as a way to boost the local economy and create jobs against South County residents who live near the base and fear an airport's impact on noise, traffic, pollution and safety.
The same geographical divide was evident among board members at the outset of the meeting. Newly appointed board member Wilson stated his staunch opposition to an airport and requested more time to examine the impact one would have on his South County constituents.
"There is no amount of testimony given today, tonight or tomorrow that's going to make me vote yes," Wilson said before seeking a 120-day delay. "This would allow all of us, both proponents and opponents, to bring closure to a variety of very troublesome issues."
Wilson's motion was joined by Saltarelli, the only other board member representing South County, but was met with a brusque response from Silva, who rolled his eyes and wondered aloud that why the county should further study an issue on which Wilson has already made up his mind: "That's not a lot you can hang your hat on," Silva said.
The request for a delay then was rejected by a 3-2 vote.
More than 30 elected officials spoke before the supervisors, followed by groups organized in favor or against an El Toro airport.
"I can't believe from the bottom of my heart we can make a decision when here are this many questions unanswered," said airport foe and Supervisor-elect Todd Spitzer
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), noting that voters have twice approved countywide ballot measures favoring an airport, advised supervisors, said, "It's time we follow the will of the voters."
In the weeks leading up to the critical vote, supervisors were besieged by thousands of faxes, phone calls and intense lobbying by both sides.
Among the partisans were businesses that rely on tourism, including Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farms, and people who envision an airport giving the county a bigger role on the world stage.
"The future of the Orange County economy must include international trade, and that means an international airport," Chapman University President James Doti told supervisors.
Developer George Argyros, who bankrolled the two pro-airport ballot campaigns, said, "I really believe this is a one-chance-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
On the other side of the business spectrum, the Orange County Business Coalition, a newly-formed group representing employees living near El Toro, fought to defeat the plan.
"Make this a showcase for enlightened reuse planning," said coalition spokesman and Irvine businessman Peter Craig.