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California and the West

Southland Airport Planners Face Frustrating Paradox

Development: LAX and El Toro, which want to expand, face opposition from neighbors. In areas with little need, residents seek investment.

March 01, 1998|SHELBY GRAD and LORENZA MUNOZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Living in the shadow of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Irvine resident Susan Johnston has signed petitions, spoken out at public hearings and contributed money in an effort to block plans to convert the base into a commercial airport.

Meanwhile, 50 miles away in the flatlands south of Moreno Valley, community leaders such as Art Pick would like nothing more than a major airport and are racing to convert March Air Force Base into an air cargo facility.

Herein lies the paradox of airport planning in Southern California. Demand for passenger and air cargo service is expected to double over the next 15 years. Yet there is little consensus over where to place new airports.

Airline experts say that the industry favors a massive expansion of Los Angeles International Airport and development of an international airport at El Toro. The sites are attractive because they are near housing and job centers.

But residents who live near LAX and El Toro are fighting the plans and suggest instead that airlines go to more welcoming communities near March and near Palmdale Airport, in the Antelope Valley 60 miles north of LAX. Palmdale and March sit on the fringes of the region and lack the population and job base of El Toro and LAX.

"It's a Catch-22," said Neil Bennett, western region director of the Air Transport Assn., which represents nearly all commercial airlines. "In order to have demand, you have to have population density. And when you have population density you have conflict."

Without the support of airlines, it is doubtful that either March or Palmdale can blossom into a true regional airport. But boosters believe that the industry will take a second look if LAX or El Toro opponents block one or both of the expansions.

The stakes are high because of the increasingly important role that air trade plays in Southern California's economy. Proponents of the LAX and El Toro projects say the economy will suffer if the region does not find ways to accommodate more flights.

LAX alone pumps $44 billion a year into the region's economy and about 400,000 jobs are tied to its operations, according to airport officials. By 2015, they say, an expanded airport could generate $64 billion in economic activity and 472,000 jobs.

A study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments found that by 2020, the region's 14 biggest airports could serve as many as 157.4 million passengers annually if El Toro is built and LAX is expanded.

If El Toro is scrapped, projected regional capacity would drop by 4%. If both the LAX and El Toro projects are killed, projected capacity would drop by 16%, according to the association.

The regional planning organization in 1993 found that, of the five military bases being closed in Southern California, including March, El Toro was the best site for a new airport.

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Expansion opponents don't dispute the economic need for more airport facilities but say the solution lies on the outskirts of the region.

"I find it so odd that we are doing battle over this issue when there are other areas in the region that would love an airport," said Lake Forest Councilman Richard Dixon. "There's no reason an area that doesn't want an airport should have to have one."

Dixon and other El Toro expansion opponents say the growth projections fail to consider the high costs of environmental mitigations, such as retrofitting thousands of homes and business with noise-reducing insolation and windows.

LAX foes make the same argument, adding that the government association has not taken into account the possibility that vocal opposition could delay the project or require it to be trimmed.

The debate has created some unexpected alliances. Rather than fighting among themselves over which expansion should go forward, LAX and El Toro foes are largely unified in the position that neither project is acceptable.

"What they are proposing is an accident waiting to happen," said El Segundo resident Liz Garnholz, who added that the noise from passing LAX jets is so loud that she had noise-mitigating windows installed in her home.

Besides safety concerns, residents who live near LAX and El Toro fear that the projects would bring noise, pollution and traffic gridlock and would reduce property values. "It would ruin our quality of life," said Johnston, who lives under the proposed El Toro flight path.

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The military is scheduled to pull out of El Toro next year, and the county is proposing that the base be converted into an international airport. LAX is already one of the nation's largest airports, but the city wants to add another runway, build a new terminal and make other additions.

March and Palmdale would be better alternatives, backers say, if a high-speed rail system were built linking those areas to Los Angeles and Orange County population centers.

The government association has studied the idea of a rail system connecting local airports but places the price at $6 billion.

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