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Plan for El Toro Airport Debated

July 18, 2001|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Opponents in the feud over the fate of the former El Toro Marine base faced off Tuesday in a debate over whether to build an international airport or an urban park.

The themes emerged during a live radio debate at UC Irvine's Barclay Theater sponsored by KCRW-FM, which has 450,000 listeners across Southern California. It was the first time the public radio station has broadcast its public affairs show "Which Way L.A.?" from Orange County.

Park proponents called their plan a superior legacy for Orange County than an airport that would destroy the refuge from urban ills that suburban south Orange County represents for many.

Airport backers called it essential for the county's economic growth and warned that the park measure contains a bait-and-switch clause allowing the land to be developed for other uses.

The often raucous audience appeared to be against the airport from the start of the 90-minute program, when Irvine Mayor Larry Agran was the only panelist greeted by applause. Airport backers chimed in with guffaws and chatter.

Though much of the debate restated familiar themes in the 7-year-old debate over the base, which closed in 1999, new arguments emerged, with airport supporters targeting the popular park alternative. The measure, which has yet to qualify for the March ballot, would replace airport zoning approved in 1994 with park and nature preserve zoning.

Panelist Barbara Lichman, an attorney and executive director of the Airport Working Group of Newport Beach, said the measure includes language that would allow Irvine--or whoever ultimately would develop the land--to build on much of the site.

"Areas identified [as] open space are not necessarily committed to permanent open space uses," Lichman read from the proposed initiative. "Certain property within the open space category is committed, through public or private ownership, to remain as open space, but other property, due to market pressures to serve a growing county population, may ultimately be developed in other ways."

The city is committed to developing the park, Agran argued.

"Why wouldn't the people of Orange County want a great metropolitan park rather than a polluted airport?" he said.

Agran and anti-airport panelists Leonard Kranser of Dana Point said there are enough airports in Southern California--including John Wayne Airport--to handle future airline passengers.

Pro-airport panelist Orange County Supervisor Chuck Smith said the county should build El Toro to take care of its share of Southern California's air travel demand.

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