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El Toro Foes Lose Bid to Block Jet Noise Test

Airport: Only bad weather or FAA could stop 27 takeoffs and 27 landings by commercial planes over the weekend.

June 02, 1999|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a setback to foes of an airport at El Toro, an Orange County judge Tuesday refused to block the noise test planned this weekend in which commercial planes will land at and take off from the Marine base.

Barring inclement weather or last-minute action by the Federal Aviation Administration, jets will begin landing and departing at the base at 6 a.m. Friday, despite strong objections from the city of Irvine and safety questions raised Tuesday by a pilots group.

"I guess we pray for rain," said Dan Jung, city planner for Irvine, which went to court to block the test.

Superior Court Judge Ronald Bauer refused to grant a temporary restraining order halting the flights, which the city's attorneys argued should require a state environmental impact report.

Bauer said the two-day flight demonstration was exempted properly by the Board of Supervisors from time-consuming environmental review because it will have an insignificant effect on the environment. He said the county is justified in conducting the test because its intent is to provide useful information.

A 3-2 pro-airport majority of supervisors approved the $1.3-million test earlier this year, saying that it will give South County residents a "real-life" demonstration of how much noise commercial jets would make at El Toro. The county is planning an international airport there that can handle up to 28.8 million passengers annually by 2020.

Weather permitting, pilots will fly 27 landings and 27 departures both days this weekend using a mix of commercial aircraft, from a wide-body Boeing 747-400 to smaller Boeing 737s.

Weather could be a factor because the Marine Corps, which is providing air-traffic controllers for the demonstration, has already removed its system for guiding aircraft in poor visibility. If clouds interfere, the test cannot be rescheduled before the Marines leave on July 2.

South County foes of the new airport have branded the test worthless and complained that pilots will fly with lighter-than-normal weights, producing less noise.

In his comments Tuesday, Bauer acknowledged that anti-El Toro forces see the test "a sham, spin-doctoring and just public relations."

"It could be all those things, but it is clearly also information collecting," Bauer said, citing one of the exemptions to environmental reviews allowed by state law.

Attorney Chris Caldwell had argued for Irvine that the tests will harm the environment because of excessive noise. He said the county also is proposing takeoff paths that are not used by the military.

The county plans for commercial jets to depart to the north and east, while military jets have departed to the south.

"These are unused, untested routes," Caldwell argued.

While expressing sharp disappointment over their court defeat, Irvine officials said they will not challenge the flight demonstration further.

"If the tests go forward, we'll just hope for the best," City Councilman Larry Agran said. "But I doubt any useful information will come out of this."

Since the federal government announced in 1993 that it would close El Toro, elected officials across the county have been divided on how best to use the 4,700-acre facility, which includes the airfield, base housing, warehouses and hangars.

A countywide vote in 1994 designated 2,000 acres of the base for a future airport. The remaining land is planned for Orange County's largest urban park, with 1,000 acres to be set aside for wildlife habitat managed by the federal Department of the Interior.

In 1996, supervisors approved a mid-size international airport for El Toro after considering a much larger facility that could handle 38 million passengers a year.

Airport foes have argued that the noise test, even two days' worth, represents a tipping of the dominoes that eventually will lead to around-the-clock flights. Caldwell argued in court Tuesday that any non-military aviation at the base should wait until all environmental studies are complete.

Meanwhile, Jon Russell, regional safety representative for the Air Line Pilots Assn., said FAA officials in Southern California have told the group that planned northern takeoffs over Loma Ridge during the demonstration should be prohibited and that all flights should be limited to daylight hours.

The county's test schedule lists flights from 6 a.m. to midnight Friday and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday. Barring nighttime flights would eliminate about half of the Friday flights and several on Saturday.

An FAA spokesman in Washington said the agency could not respond until today to Russell's concerns, raised in a letter to FAA officials who were meeting late Tuesday with county representatives to discuss final details of the pending test.

Courtney Wiercioch, manager of the county's El Toro planning office, said the FAA has not told the county to make any changes.

"They have said the [flight] proposal as submitted is acceptable," Wiercioch said. "As far as I understand it, everything is workable."

The pilots group and the Allied Pilots Assn., which together represent the nation's commercial pilots, oppose the county's proposed takeoff routes at El Toro, citing safety risks because of the hilly terrain.

Agran has said that county officials are forgetting a 1965 crash of a military transport jet over Loma Ridge that killed 84 people. That crash ended the Marines' use of the northern departure route, the same one where flights are scheduled this weekend.

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