A new UC Irvine poll shows that a March ballot initiative that could scuttle plans for an airport at El Toro has managed to confuse voters on both sides--a finding that could further inflame what is one of the most divisive issues in Orange County history.
The UCI poll shows that support for the measure is almost evenly split, 48% in favor to 46% against, in otherwise fervently anti-airport South County, where roughly two-thirds of the voters have traditionally opposed an airport.
But when poll participants were told in a follow-up question that passage of the initiative could stop the county's plans for an international airport at the closed 4,700-acre Marine base, many switched their positions and the results reverted to the standard split--61% in favor of the measure, 34%
"It shows there is ambivalence and confusion about [the initiative], especially in South County," said Cheryl Katz, co-director of UCI's Orange County Annual Survey.
March's ballot measure establishes a requirement of two-thirds voter approval before county officials could build or expand airports, large jails within half a mile of homes, and hazardous-waste landfills. The initiative, written by South County cities, is intended to force a third public vote on the county's plans for El Toro, and to stop county supervisors from expanding the James A. Musick jail in Lake Forest.
In the wake of the poll results, both supporters and opponents of the proposed airport said they had a lot of work to do to get their messages across clearly to voters.
In fact, the confusion also appears to have spread to North County voters, who traditionally have favored an airport at El Toro: 51% voiced approval of the measure and 39% opposed it, until they were told of its impact. Then they, too, reverted to the standard split, with support for the initiative nose-diving to 41%.
Countywide, half of all voters would cast yes ballots for the initiative, with 41% voting no.
Initiative boosters were stumped Monday by the tepid support in South County to the first poll question. Residents in that area have been fighting an airport for six years.
"It can't be true," said Jeffrey Metzger, head of Citizens for Safe and Healthy Communities. "All I can say is that it's not a reflection of all of the information they're going to know [by election day]."
However, "it doesn't surprise me about North County," he said. "We've been saying all along that people want the power to decide."
Bruce Nestande, Metzger's pro-airport counterpart, said support probably sags in South County because more voters are familiar with the measure and understand its weaknesses. North County voters are less entwined in the airport debate, he said.
"If you don't know anything else about [the measure], you think it's a jail measure in North County," said Nestande, chairman of the pro-El Toro Citizens for Jobs and the Economy. "But they don't realize it makes it more difficult to provide public safety. In South County, there are people against the airport but they still don't like the initiative."
Part of the confusion rests with the measure's wording, survey director Mark Baldassare said: Voting yes essentially means a no vote on El Toro, while voting no is a way of ensuring that airport planning continues.
Another pitfall for the initiative's backers, he said, is that voters will also be inundated with material on a statewide measure to eliminate the two-thirds vote requirement for school bonds. Local voters will be barraged with the problems inherent in super-majority votes for schools while also being asked to approve them for airports, jails and toxic dumps.
"This initiative is going to be a tough sell," Baldassare said.
El Toro clearly is a more visceral issue in South County than in North County, according to other UCI poll results. Crime easily led the list of concerns for North County residents, while crime and El Toro virtually tied as major issues in South County.
Voter opinion about the airport, meanwhile, remains mired in the same impasse that has existed for the last three years of polling. Among all voters, 46% oppose the airport while 42% support it.
That intractable split is taking its toll on county residents, Katz said. The survey shows that there is a low percentage of voters undecided about the airport and about the March initiative, but that doesn't mean people are happy about having to take those positions.
"Overall, it looks like people are getting fatigued with the issue," Katz said.
That could have an impact on the airport issue after March. El Toro airport opponents have vowed to come back next November with another vote to rescind special airport zoning for the base regardless of what happens in March.
The UCI opinion survey was conducted among 1,000 residents, with 724 registered voters providing responses on the March initiative. About 70% were from North County, reflecting the county's registration split.
* A TRUE DIVIDE