Two cities considered crucial in the El Toro airport debate have joined the pro-airport group's ranks.
The cities, Tustin and Orange, joined the Orange County Regional Airport Authority after months of courting.
They are pivotal in the airport fight because their residents would be affected both by departing flights from a proposed commercial airport at the closing El Toro Marine base and by more arrivals at an expanded John Wayne Airport if El Toro isn't built.
Yorba Linda and Fullerton also have jumped aboard the pro-airport authority in the past month, bringing its membership to 13.
The bylaws of the authority advocate an airport built at the 4,700-acre Marine Corps Air Station that is "sensitive to the interests of nearby residents."
All four cities joined even though their city councils aren't unified in favoring an airport as the best use of El Toro after the Marines leave in July.
South County airport foes accused the pro-airport regional authority of pulling a bait-and-switch to entice new members. Though cities were encouraged to join regardless of whether they had taken a stand on El Toro, the group's bylaws state otherwise.
"This is just another way for Newport Beach to pay the bills and claim that they have [other cities'] support," said Paul Eckles, executive director of the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, the anti-airport group with seven member cities.
So far, it hasn't cost cities anything to join the pro-El Toro group, whose administrative costs are borne by airport boosters Newport Beach and Anaheim. The minimum fee for cities in the anti-airport group, however, is $280,000, or 10% of its $2.8-million budget for this year.
Of the county's 31 cities, 11 have joined neither the pro- nor the anti-airport groups. The largest uncommitted city is Santa Ana, which supported the 1994 measure creating airport zoning by 6,000 votes.
Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido said the lobbying has been intense by both sides for his city to declare itself.
"We've made a conscious decision to stay in the middle on El Toro," Pulido said. "We have a lot of other regional projects that we're working on."
Peggy Ducey, Newport's deputy city manager, who acts as the pro-airport group's executive director, said last week that the Orange County Regional Airport Authority intends to make itself more visible in the debate and will begin asking cities to contribute toward specific projects.
This is a critical year for airport planning. A draft environmental review is due this summer, with final approval for the airport expected in December from the Board of Supervisors.
"A lot of cities are seeing that we're in the home stretch," said Ducey, who lives in Laguna Niguel.
"This is an acknowledgment that the planning process is coming to a close and they'd better get involved before something happens that they don't support."
The pro-airport authority will be asked to take positions on other issues affecting El Toro, including a plan for interim cargo flights at the base, which is on this week's agenda.
The group will also review a countywide initiative proposed for the March 2000 ballot by airport foes that would require a two-thirds vote of the electorate before so-called noxious uses such as airports, landfills or jails could be approved.
Eyes on both side of the debate have rested on Tustin, whose residents complained early in the planning process that county planners had proposed northerly departures from El Toro that hooked west over the city.
The county has since reassured Tustin that studies support a due-north takeoff pattern, thus avoiding developed areas.
South County airport foes, in challenging the county's assurance, have been buoyed by a letter from the Air Line Pilots Assn. calling straight-north departures hazardous because of nearby Loma Ridge.
The Federal Aviation Administration hasn't approved any commercial aircraft patterns for El Toro and could change the county's plans, the airport foes said.
Tustin, the latest city to join the pro-airport group, approved its membership by a 3-2 City Council vote, with members Tracy Wills Worley and Jim Potts opposed. Worley and Potts live in Tustin Ranch, which is bordered by Jamboree Road and is the closest Tustin neighborhood to El Toro.
Tustin voters opposed the original 1994 airport measure by just 110 votes.
Mayor Thomas R. Saltarelli said Tustin challenged the county on the airport initially to protect its interests. That challenge included joining a South County lawsuit against an initial environmental review.
But as airport planning has gathered steam, it is in the city's interest to influence the process as much as possible, he said.
"People are very naive if they don't think John Wayne [Airport] will be substantially expanded if El Toro does not become an airport," he said. "We're already shouldering a huge burden of transportation needs of South County."
In Orange, where residents supported the original airport zoning measure by 4,000 votes, Councilman Mike Alvarez said joining the group doesn't mean the city supports the airport.
"I think a lot of people want a revote on it," said Alvarez, an El Toro opponent. "We're the third-largest city [in the county], and we felt it was time to get involved."
Yorba Linda Mayor John Gullixson said he is ambivalent about the airport but not about making sure the city is heard as the county continues planning.