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El Toro Takeoff Plans Shift With Political Winds

March 26, 1998|LORENZA MUNOZ and SHELBY GRAD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Anxious to prevent the spread of anti-airport sentiment to another group of communities under El Toro's secondary takeoff path, county officials are trying to figure out if departing planes can be directed away from Tustin, Cowan Heights and East Orange.

The county now wants to have planes take off directly over sparsely populated areas around Irvine Lake, instead of making a westerly turn over those central county cities.

For two months, county officials have been quietly meeting with key central county leaders, including former Supervisor Don Saltarelli, in an effort to forge a solution to the potential noise problem that an international airport at El Toro could create for some central communities.

Anti-airport activism has been confined largely to South County cities such as Irvine, Lake Forest and Mission Viejo--all of which are under the easterly takeoff route that 70% of the flights from a commercial El Toro airport would take.

The remaining 30% of the flights, including those by the largest--and coincidentally the noisiest--jet aircraft in operation, would both take off and land on El Toro's north runway.

Until now, Tustin and surrounding communities have either remained neutral on the airport issue or have expressed qualified support, hoping a new airport would ultimately reduce the number of jets flying over them en route to landings at John Wayne Airport.

An erosion of support in these cities could cause problems for the county's airport plan, according to some who have closely followed the political debate over future civilian uses of the soon-to-be-retired Marine base.

"For the time being, the central county has seen the El Toro airport as having less of an impact on them than John Wayne. But that could change as people begin to look more closely at the issue," said Mark Baldassare, a professor of urban planning at UC Irvine who has conducted several polls on the issue.

"These communities are key to continued backing for the El Toro [airport] plan," he added. "If their view changes, it could further erode public support."

The Board of Supervisors is divided 3 to 2 on the airport, with the three supervisors who represent the north and central counties supporting it, and the two who represent the south and eastern areas of the county in opposition.

The emerging opposition in Tustin, Cowan Heights and East Orange does not change the political dynamics at the Board of Supervisors, because these cities are represented by Todd Spitzer and Tom Wilson, who already oppose the airport.

But the county can ill afford any dilution of public support for transforming the El Toro base into a commercial airport, because the South County cities alone are already causing the county headaches.

Not surprisingly, airport backers were quick to support the county's efforts to redirect the takeoff patterns away from central county homes.

Ultimately, however, it will be the Federal Aviation Administration--not the county--that will approve or disapprove of the flight patterns, according to Courtney Wiercioch, the head of the county's airport planning FAA group.

Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration have said they will not comment on the county's plans for El Toro until they are finalized next year.

Herman C. Bliss, manager of the FAA's Western-Pacific Regional Airports Division, said last week his agency is unlikely to review or sign off on takeoff patterns or any other matters until a final plan is approved by the Board of Supervisors.

Peggy Ducey, the deputy city manager of Newport Beach who helped facilitate the meetings between county officials and representatives of the central cities as part of a push to solidify airport support, said "it's imperative that the county work with the community. When you don't have good community participation, it is going to be very difficult" to maintain support.

Central City Residents Concerned

Since 1995, when voters passed an initiative paving the way for a commercial airport, the strongest support has come from Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Anaheim.

But recently, as community leaders in Tustin and Orange became more aware that all cargo and international flights would be flying directly over their communities, they have begun questioning the current plan.

In addition, a county mailer titled "The Myth Buster," which was designed to dispel misinformation about the airport noise issue, had the unintended effect of alarming some central city residents.

The mailer said that communities directly under the northerly flight path were Cowan Heights and Tustin.

Takeoffs over these communities "would have a very significant effect on my feelings" about the airport plan, said Saltarelli, who voted in favor of the county's airport reuse plan in December 1996 and lives in East Orange.

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