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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Clarity for El Toro

Fixing the EIR is key to credible reuse plans

January 18, 1998

We have observed that 1998 must be the year to get El Toro reuse planning in better shape, and to move beyond partisan bickering. Judge Judith McConnell's charge to the county to bring the environmental impact report (EIR) into conformity with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) arrived in timely fashion on Jan. 6. Her instructions illustrate the dimensions of the task.

While pro-airport forces stepped up their public relations initiatives at the end of 1997, the judge's ruling shows that there is no substitute for substance. Underestimating the project's impact on surrounding communities was no way to build support. Indeed, we warned before county supervisors approved an airport for El Toro in late 1996 that they needed to take more time on the EIR. While allowing the process to move forward, McConnell has directed the county to fix things that have to do with the county's representations.

These judicial observations mostly seem to be about common sense. First, she said, an airport proposal at El Toro would have to analyze the impact against existing conditions, not what might exist at some future time. There's a big difference between a Marine Corps airfield and a civilian airport serving perhaps 23 million passengers a year. That big a project would make a difference in the lives of nearby residents. Similarly, she wanted a more thorough comparison made of an airport against a scenario in which nothing was done at El Toro. She wanted to know about the impact if no infrastructure improvements were made, and required a firmer commitment on noise mitigation. Impacts on endangered species and agricultural land got her attention.

It's clear the county needs to do a better job of spelling out what it really wants, and to state what the full impact will be.

The judge's observation on the EIR's anticipated closure of John Wayne Airport, for example, shows how much room there is for confusion about what the county really intends to do. A Board of Supervisors that since has changed personnel voted at the end of 1996 to develop a two-airport system, but here we see the county reckoning in its core planning with the very scenario that most worries South County. It's the concern that the El Toro airport proposal is a way of eventually diverting the county's primary air traffic from the skies over affluent Newport Beach.

Taken together, the discrepancies in baseline comparisons for measuring the impact of an El Toro airport can convey an impression that justification was sought to minimize environmental concerns. If this is not true, it's up to the county to demonstrate good faith.

So credibility remains at the heart of the El Toro dilemma. Here are two cases in point: the squabble over information between the county and the seven-city coalition in South County working on non-aviation uses, and the neighborhood fight between Newport Beach and Irvine over a previously approved annexation in Bonita Canyon.

In the first instance, the county's reluctance to have consultant documents mobilized against airport plans is understandable. However, concerns of the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority that runways will be reconfigured quietly need to be addressed openly and soon. This is especially true in view of pilots' safety concerns, and alarm in surrounding communities about flight patterns. As it stands, the matter appears headed for a distracting and costly freedom of information lawsuit.

Second, the Newport-Irvine border dispute is an example of a needless problem arising from mistrust. It is unfortunate that Irvine has contemplated annexing El Toro at all. Now former supervisor Don Saltarelli's ill-advised entry into the picture on behalf of Newport Beach has put the Bonita Canyon deal in jeopardy. This ultimately could affect schoolchildren, who ought not be victimized by a grown-ups' dispute over airplanes. Irvine should not be gambling with an important agreement, but given what the judge has said, neither can it assert with much confidence that its interests are being served by the county.

Thus the El Toro mess cries out for clarification, candor and openness from the county's top leaders. Last week, the county received support for both the dual airport system and proposed runway configurations from a consultant. Now, the emphasis must be on finding solutions, not on protecting narrow self-interest. As the departure of the Marines approaches next year, what's needed is a commitment on all sides to forge a workable solution to reuse.

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