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Anti-Airport Initiative Leading Big

El Toro: O.C. voters apparently agree to mandatory two-thirds approval of electorate before major projects.


A measure that could put the brakes on an El Toro airport, while redefining how Orange County makes major land-use decisions, appeared headed toward an easy victory early today.

Voters were leaning heavily toward Measure F, which would require the Board of Supervisors to gain the approval of two-thirds of the county's voters before it could build airports, large jails within a half-mile of homes or hazardous-waste landfills.

But results for this and other votes in Orange County were particularly slow in coming because of a technical problem at the county registrar of voters' office. One particular type of ballot card was being rejected by the scanning machine, assistant registrar Don Taylor said, so election staff were processing them by hand.

"I can't remember there being an election night when counting was so fouled up," said Michael Schroeder, a former state chairman of the Republican Party, who was watching election returns with the party faithful at Sutton Place Hotel in Newport Beach.

The glitch hardly dampened the spirits of Measure F supporters.

"The passage of Measure F is more than a rejection of the El Toro airport, it's a rejection of the planning process and the corrupt approach by a majority of [county] supervisors," said activist Tristan Krogius at the Holiday Inn-Laguna Hills, where several hundred Yes on F volunteers gathered.

Passage of the measure would mean be the first victory for anti-airport forces on an issue that has dominated Orange County's political landscape for six years. The airport was approved by voters in 1994; a move to rescind that approval failed two years later.

Yes on F committee chairman Jeffrey Metzger said support for the measure compiled from around the county proved the issue wasn't "just South County NIMBY-ism."

"The county has been operating behind closed doors for far too long," said Meg Waters, spokeswoman for an eight-city South County coalition opposing the airport. "People tonight feel like Boston did 200 years ago when they started throwing boxes of tea over the side of the ship."

Despite the victory, Board of Supervisors Chairman Charles V. Smith said the county will proceed with airport plans, conducting "business as usual."

Bruce Nestande, chairman of the No on F committee, conceded that opponents had an uphill battle. But even if the measure passes, he said, it will be challenged in court and ultimately won't stop airport planning because the land still is zoned for aviation.

"They can claim victory and if they win they win, but when the dust settles, what do they have?" he said. "They'll have paid a high price for a victory that doesn't get them anyplace."

But the measure does have some immediate effects by banning the allocation of public money toward the airport. So, for example, the county would be blocked from its lobbying efforts in Washington.

The battle over Measure F ignited South County in a do-or-die fight against an El Toro airport, which many residents there saw as a devastating threat to safety, quiet and property values. Animus toward the new airport soared after two days of demonstration flights this past June gave residents a real-time sense of what life might be like with commercial jets landing and taking off over their homes.

Airport opponents seized on Measure F's voter-imposed protection as a defense against future government incursion. Many voters said before the election that they supported the measure not because of the airport but because it would force government to prove to two-thirds of voters countywide that large projects are necessary.

Measure supporters gathered more than $1.5 million to push its passage, collected from more than 10,000 donors, most in South County.In addition to throwing airport planning into disarray, Measure F also could halt the county's plans to expand the James A. Musick branch jail in Lake Forest without a public vote. The jail expansion, approved in 1998, has been tied up in court challenges by Irvine and Lake Forest.

Measure F opponents have vowed all along that if the measure passed, it would be challenged in court. If it stands, it would require county supervisors to place a fourth El Toro airport measure before voters.

The fight against Measure F was funded almost entirely by Orange County businessman George Argyros, who contributed $1.2 million of the $1.3 million spent to defeat it. Argyros said his commitment to El Toro rested on his belief that an airport is essential to the county's economic future.

Last-minute campaign mailers attacking the measure often ignored the airport and warned voters instead that its restriction on jail construction would lead to a plethora of smaller jails built within cities. The measure binds county supervisors, not city councils.

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