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Beyond the Initiative

At El Toro, it is the base reuse process that has fallen flat.

March 05, 2000

Whatever happens Tuesday to Measure F, the Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative, the county must move quickly to bridge the wide gulf between the Board of Supervisors and a vast segment of the county's population.

As we suggested in our Feb. 13 editorial on the broken El Toro base reuse process, the gathering of many signatures to place an initiative on the ballot requiring two-thirds approval of voters for many major projects suggests how great a credibility crisis exists. The county cannot continue with business as usual in its planning for a big international airport, which as currently proposed raises so many questions about safe flight operations, runway configuration and impact on people's lives.

If the measure passes, then the county's plan to build a nearly 29-million-passenger international commercial airport at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station must be submitted to voters for review under the provisions of the initiative. This would be after the likely approval of the airport by a thin majority of county supervisors later this year. The support for the initiative evident in recent polling suggests that the county cannot begin thinking a moment too soon about what to do next, even with a sizable group of undecided voters.

The board's chairman already has suggested the possibility of a counter-initiative. First among county priorities with or without Measure F ought to be the restoration of sanity to the process, not more ballot-box planning. We oppose Measure F because it would decide by initiative how land would be used. We argued against this concept on Measure A, the narrowly passed 1994 initiative that rezoned the base for an airport and has caused so much mischief. Our concerns about Measure F have to do with the long-term plan of governance, and with minority rule. At the same time, we recognize and lament that the derailed base reuse process has disenfranchised those who will have to live with what comes next at El Toro. The wrongful removal of Irvine and Lake Forest from the Local Redevelopment Authority, or LRA, was itself an indication of how initiative planning can go awry.

If opponents of Measure F close the gap in the final days, theirs would be a victory on a long timeline. The process is far from over. Identifying a redevelopment plan that earns community support still will remain an elusive goal. We previously have observed that the public relations war over the current airport plan essentially has been decided; the plan is unlikely to win the necessary community acceptance.

Win or lose on Measure F, there almost certainly will be a substantial constituency of voters who remain strongly opposed to the big international airport proposal, and their local governments surely will press ahead with attempts to overturn the plan and replace it with a non-aviation use. From that perspective, an indecisive win for the pro-airport forces Tuesday still leaves the community acceptance problem, and many issues to be reckoned with in court.

We have said that resolving the impasse at El Toro turns in large part on the need to ensure that communities surrounding the base are represented adequately on the LRA. The righting of the federal base reuse procedure is therefore paramount. The affected communities need better participation in the formulation of a base reuse plan, and they must assent. These base reuse guidelines should be affirmed and honored.

If the initiative passes, the supervisors will have to sort out the difficult choice of whether to allow a vote on the current plan or to suspend planning pending the convening of a more representative LRA. The county faces a lawsuit on the legitimacy of the LRA whatever it does. The federal base reuse guidelines instruct the LRA, which is limited currently to county supervisors, to develop the complete support of affected communities. Whether the initiative passes or fails, a reconfigured and more inclusive authority will be needed to bridge the credibility chasm and produce something for the base site that can win community acceptance.

In the heat of a campaign, it is difficult to look beyond the moment at the entire picture. But at El Toro, it is the base reuse process that has fallen flat. For the satisfactory resolution of this community crisis, it must be fixed soon.

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