The city of Irvine is poised to approve more than 2,500 homes near a flight path for the proposed El Toro airport, part of a strategy many say is intended to block any airfield at the former Marine base.
The housing project--on land visible to thousands of motorists passing daily on the San Diego Freeway between Sand Canyon and Laguna Canyon roads--is incompatible with an airport, a state commission has told the city. But the City Council is expected to allow the large-scale development of the Irvine Co. parcel anyway. It would be the first neighborhood built near the former Marine base since it was decommissioned in July 1999.
City officials contend that a commercial airport will never open at the base, so the construction of homes, schools and child-care centers should be allowed beneath or near such possible flight paths. Irvine and other south Orange County cities want El Toro transformed into a large urban park and have drafted an ordinance that airport foes hope to place on the March ballot.
Meanwhile, commercial development closer to the base has been proceeding with Irvine's blessing, including rezoning portions of the Irvine Co.'s Spectrum business and technology park adjacent to the base to allow homes and child-care centers. The city also wants to annex land north of the base for homes.
"This is putting a development where an airport is not going to be," Councilman Chris Mears said of the Irvine Co.'s project known as Planning Area 17, which will go to the city's Planning Commission on Thursday.
"If we felt there was going to be an airport ever built at El Toro, we of course might have a different view," he said. "We're not putting anyone at risk because there will not be an airport there."
Councilman Mike Ward said the plan provides much needed housing in his city. "We have a lot of businesses in Irvine, and if we don't build homes, the problem is going to get worse."
The development would include homes, 1.1 million square feet of office and retail space, a 17-acre community park, a fire station and a school on 746 acres of rolling hills and grasslands.
Tract maps for the new neighborhood will be considered Thursday, but a final vote won't be taken until next month. Grading can begin once the Planning Commission approves the maps.
Irvine began to encourage development around the base near the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways two years ago, spurred by incoming Councilman and now Mayor Larry Agran. The concept: Allow homes and schools in areas where building had been restricted for 56 years because of noise from military jets.
Any development, in turn, would produce more allies in the city's battle against converting El Toro's airfield into the second-largest commercial airport in Southern California.
UC Irvine political science professor Mark Petracca, an airport foe, compared the strategy to "Saddam Hussein ringing little children around military installations in the Gulf War as a disincentive to bomb."
Lake Forest, which also has control over areas near the base, has opted against approving new homes and schools there.
"We don't feel that that's wise, but that's what Irvine wants to do, so I can't criticize them," Lake Forest Mayor Kathryn McCullough said. "Every city has their own commitment to their citizens."
The Airport Land Use Commission, a state-created panel that oversees airport-area development, has continued to restrict construction on 14,000 acres around the base, citing the possible future airport. The limits have remained in place in areas once affected by noise from military jets and in potential crash zones.
Irvine and Lake Forest sued the state commission last year, but lost. Irvine has twice overridden the panel's warnings against building in the buffer zone. Doing so means the city accepts responsibility for paying any damages for excessive noise or plane crashes in the area should an airport be built.
Pro-airport spokesman Bruce Nestande said Irvine's actions show that city officials are more interested in rushing development around the base than in protecting future residents from noise from an airport that the county still plans to build. "It shows their true colors," he said.
In fact, designers of the new community did consider the presence of a future airport--just in case.
A portion of the planning area would fall within a "high noise" zone left over from El Toro military days. Planners have placed houses outside that zone, but did leave within it the option of building child-care centers, convalescent homes and hospitals by special permit.
County officials say the area subject to greatest aircraft noise will shrink after the airport is built. One reason is that commercial planes are much quieter than military jets. The county also wants planes to depart El Toro to the north and east. Planes would arrive from the south, and aircraft engines generally are quieter during descent.