Foes of the proposed international airport at El Toro have abandoned efforts to kill the project through a ballot initiative this year, dealing themselves a significant setback in their long struggle to block construction.
A coalition of south Orange County cities and activist groups essentially ran out of time for a 1999 vote. With deadlines approaching, they could not reach agreement on how to phrase the initiative or what they would need to assure victory.
"We would have had to have everything submitted by mid-February," said Paul Eckles, executive director of the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, a seven-city group fighting the airport. "I'm sure everyone has worked out the math."
Airport opponents had been promising a special election this year for a vote on whether to replace the county's airport plans with their Millennium Plan, a non-aviation alternative for the 4,700-acre Marine Corps Air Station. The base will close in July.
Now, however, the coalition will try to develop a broader initiative to put on the ballot next year. The replacement measure would call for a two-thirds vote of the public for new or expanded airports, landfills and jails anywhere in the county.
The new strategy not only veers sharply from earlier plans but also defies the original rationale for pushing toward a special election this year. Airport opponents long have argued that their best chance of defeating the project was through a nonelection-year vote in which a low turnout would be dominated by South County voters.
Eckles said considerable thought and research went into deciding how best to proceed and how to encourage support not only in South County but the rest of Orange County.
"We want this to be a groundswell issue," said Bill Kogerman, head of Taxpayers for Responsible Planning, a citizen group that has fought airport plans for three years.
But some allies disagree with the move.
"This is a disaster," said Mark P. Petracca, a UC Irvine political science professor and airport opponent.
"This once again would deny to voters in this county an opportunity to choose between specific reuse plans for El Toro," he said. "And politically, it's a disaster because this kind of ballot initiative is unlikely to have much appeal outside of South County."
Airport supporters called the change in their rivals' strategy an acknowledgment that the Millennium Plan would not have passed muster with voters.
They said the new tactic is a "last-ditch effort" to broaden support by appealing to other voters worried about major projects being forced on their communities in the future.
"This is a no-growth initiative and it's not going to win," said Bruce Nestande, head of the pro-airport Citizens for Jobs and the Economy.
He said the initiative, if passed, would force needed public improvements such as jails to face unwinnable two-thirds votes despite what could be years and millions of dollars of planning.
"They are so blinded by the airport that they'll do anything, including sacrificing good planning, to defeat it," Nestande said. "I don't think people in Orange County are that irresponsible."
Eckles said his group will decide at its Monday meeting whether to pay the costs of drafting an official "Safe and Healthy Communities" initiative that would be delivered to the Board of Supervisors to put on the ballot.
If the board declines to put it on a ballot--and a majority already has indicated it won't--South County residents said they are prepared to gather the signatures themselves to place the measure on the March or November ballot in 2000. They would need about 100,000 valid signatures to qualify.
Pro-airport forces had been gearing up for what they expected would be a 1999 ballot fight. In the past week, two cities joined the Orange County Regional Airport Authority, which supports an El Toro airport, bringing that group's membership to 11 cities.
Tustin will consider next week whether to join the pro-airport group, which consists of Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Cypress, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Los Alamitos, Newport Beach, Seal Beach, Stanton, Villa Park and Yorba Linda.
The South County initiative could be challenged by residents in older North County cities who long have put up with major public-works neighbors such as jails and landfills in their midst, said David Ellis, a consultant to the pro-airport Airport Working Group.
"There's already a dislike of South County elitists who at the end of the day want their own private Idaho," Ellis said. "This plays right into that."
No matter how it is worded, the initiative still would be fought by the same pro-business forces that are supporting the airport as an essential economic benefit for Orange County's future growth.
"You're not going to be able to disguise this as anything other than an anti-El Toro vote," said Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University. "Plus, I don't think it'll work."