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Whatever Happens at the Polls, Airport Issue Won't Go Away

March 05, 2000|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County voters will have one more chance to affect the county's plans for an airport at the closed El Toro Marine base when they decide the fate of Measure F on Tuesday's ballot.

The future of the 4,700-acre El Toro base is at the heart of the measure, which was written by a coalition of South County cities to protest a process they said tried to force an airport into an area that doesn't want it.

If passed, Measure F would require approval of two-thirds of county voters before supervisors could build airports, large jails and hazardous waste landfills near residential areas.

The majority of county supervisors who support an El Toro airport argue that the measure would strangle county planning because of the political improbability of swaying so many voters to support controversial public works projects.

So far, polls have shown that the airport fight is driving Measure F's overwhelming support in South County. The measure is also favored by many in North County, where the two-thirds requirement is seen as a way of giving people more of a voice in government decisions.

* AIRPORT DEBATE

For more information about the airport debate, click onto The Times' newly expanded Web site at http://www.latimes.com/eltoro. The site includes a comprehensive Measure F voter guide, special research sections, interactive bulletin boards, an insider column and the latest news.

Whatever happens, though, the issue of an airport at El Toro won't be over on Tuesday. Airport supporters, who sued once to keep the measure off the ballot, said they'll sue again if Measure F passes. Airport opponents have vowed, regardless, to revisit the airport issue at the ballot box in November, hoping to sink the project for good.

The fight over the airport--and the fallout either way from Measure F--will shape Orange County for decades, said political observers who have watched the contentious issue build since 1993, when the base was targeted for closure.

"No issue has torn this county apart more than El Toro," said Fred Smoller, political science professor at Chapman University. "The El Toro airport issue will remain alive maybe another 10 years, and it will be played out in political and legal forums, and cocktail lounges."

The issue will have an even more lasting impact, he said, on relations between the more established cities in the north and the younger, wealthier cities in the south that have bankrolled the airport fight.

"Thanks to what you could call an excruciating planning process by the county, there will be a permanent North County, South County schism," Smoller said.

If Measure F passes, some observers see it as momentum for the county's percolating slow-growth movement, which surged in the 1980s but slumped after the defeat of a measure in 1988 that would have put the brakes on development.

In the only court test so far of the ballot measure, a Superior Court judge allowed it to remain before voters but raised questions about its constitutionality. Measure drafters say they anticipated a legal challenge and included language that allows the two-thirds vote margin to revert to a simple majority if that portion is overturned by a judge.

Airport supporters say there are other problems with the measure that make it unconstitutional.

History so far has favored the airport plan. In 1994, voters approved Measure A, which rezoned the base for an airport and airport-related uses. The measure also replaced a group that included South County city officials with the Board of Supervisors as the body responsible for deciding what happened at the base. An attempt two years later to rescind Measure A failed.

If Measure F passes Tuesday and ultimately is upheld by a court, it is unlikely that the pro-airport majority on the Board of Supervisors would give up without a fight. The airport then will be teed up for a fourth vote.

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