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Airport Foes Get Donation of $25,000

El Toro: Environmental foundation backs 'Great Park' initiative, calls on other organizations to join the fight.

July 30, 2001|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Laguna Canyon Foundation has opened a new front in the battle against the proposed El Toro airport by donating $25,000 in support of the "Great Park" initiative.

The environmental group's donation is the largest so far to the anti-airport initiative, which supporters hope to qualify for the March ballot.

Michael Pinto, the group's founder and president, said it was time the foundation took a political stand in efforts to convert the former 4,700-acre Marine base into a park and create a wildlife corridor that would connect the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park to the Cleveland National Forest.

"The last thing we want to see is an airport there," Pinto said. "It's so destructive."

The foundation--the fund-raising arm for the 6,000-acre coastal wilderness reserve--plans to lobby other environmental groups to lend their support to the park plan, he said.

The initiative would do away with airport zoning, approved by voters in 1994, replacing it with a parkland and nature preserve designation. About 1,000 acres would be set aside for wildlife habitat in both the park plan and the county's airport proposal.

The wildlife corridor is one of the foundation's major concerns. The airport plan includes a nearly identical corridor along one edge of the former base, but park backers contend that the noise, traffic and pollution from an airport would harm wildlife.

Criticism of Park Initiative

Airport backers say El Toro is vital to Orange County's continued economic growth and to accommodate anticipated increases in air passenger traffic. They also contend that the Great Park initiative--even if approved by voters--is not economically feasible, and the money to create it is not available. The airport plan is backed by a majority of the Orange County supervisors.

Foes, however, say that an El Toro airport would ruin the quality of life in southern Orange County, and that John Wayne Airport could be expanded to meet air travel needs. They say the Great Park could be paid with private funding and grants over time and without taxpayer money.

The foundation's donation is the largest contribution to the Orange County Central Park and Nature Preserve Initiative to date, said organizers, who have focused their fund-raising efforts on small individual gifts at the grass-roots level.

"It's a very critical gift because it comes at a critical time," said Ed Dornan, financial chairman for the initiative. "We've been wanting to develop a Web site for the Great Park and the gift will help us do that and emphasize the linkage of Laguna Canyon to the big park and then to the Cleveland National Forest."

Organizers must collect 71,206 valid signatures for the measure to qualify for the ballot. The Great Park plan was developed by Irvine and is supported by a coalition of cities in the area.

Gift Doubles the Bankroll

The foundation's donation doubles the campaign's bankroll to about $50,000, said Dornan, who handles the initiative's direct-mail fund-raising.

Organizers declined to disclose the number of signatures gathered. As many as 30,000 collected over a three-week period were discarded a month ago because a crucial map was missing from documents sent to county officials.

"It's a question we really don't want to respond to," said Jim Davy, in charge of petitions for the initiative. "We don't want our own side to let down and provide fodder to our opponents. But I will tell you we are extremely pleased and hope to get 120,000."

They have set Labor Day as the petition deadline, he said.

The gift marks only the second time the foundation has made a political donation in its 11-year history. Last year, it gave its first political gift: $25,000 to help pass a state park bond measure after the foundation filed documents with the secretary of state to protect its nonprofit status, a spokeswoman said.

The foundation's board of directors approved a resolution in 1997 opposing the El Toro airport, followed by another resolution supporting the Great Park in December.

There is a lot at stake for the foundation, Pinto said.

Decades of activism, fund-raising and lobbying have resulted in assembling what some environmentalists hail as one of the nation's unique coastal wildlife areas. Hard-fought campaigns with developers have created a 17,000-acre contiguous wild land in a county more noted for its suburban sprawl and mini-malls.

For the foundation, supporting the Great Park initiative was more of a protective reaction for the public's investments over the years, Pinto said.

"We have spent $45 million of taxpayer and private funds to purchase the land for Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, and we do not want to turn this pristine land into an approach for an international airport."

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