Supporters of transforming the closed El Toro Marine base into a large urban park instead of an airport envision it as the missing link in a swath of parks and undeveloped land that one day could stretch across central Orange County from Crystal Cove to the Cleveland National Forest.
That message will be delivered to voters countywide over the next year as airport foes promote a third ballot measure designed to kill the airfield plan, narrowly approved by voters in 1994.
"The people of Orange County don't want an international airport in the heart of Orange County; the people want a great central park in the heart of Orange County," Supervisor Todd Spitzer said at an event Monday to unveil the initiative, which will be delivered to county officials this week.
The initiative would replace airport and "airport-compatible" zoning with open space, a nature preserve and "education/park-compatible" zoning at the 4,700-acre former base. About 1,000 acres is to be set aside for wildlife habitat in both the airport and park plans.
Irvine has spent $5 million developing a detailed plan for the park, which would include a lake and botanical gardens, along with a university, sports fields, museums and three golf courses.
Airport supporters dismissed the park complex as a "feel-good" plan, crafted to match the results of polling of county residents, that might sound fine but likely won't be built. Instead, they say, if the park plan passes, lack of funding could result in radical changes to redevelopment of the base, plus that of another 14,000 acres around El Toro where building has been restricted because of military flights.
"It would be a big weed patch or it would be another city, but it's not going to be [the park] because it's totally lacking in economic feasibility," said Bruce Nestande, president of the pro-airport Citizens for Jobs and the Economy. "Price out the Griffith Observatory and a Smithsonian museum and building a lake. Those funds simply aren't there."
Park supporters insist that the base's existing buildings and agricultural land could generate enough money to maintain the property and create an endowment to develop park features over time. Private operators would be sought to develop the golf courses, a marina and other money-making activities.
An Irvine-commissioned economic study showed that interim uses of the base--leasing existing warehouses, houses and apartments, and land for agriculture--could generate as much as $25 million a year, Irvine Mayor Larry Agran said.
Even if the development takes time, it would be worth it, he said. Orange County residents don't want more "mega-malls," but want to protect the county's quality of life. Moreover, public sentiment isn't there for an airport, Agran said; support for the airport has dipped to about a third of voters.
"The majority of the Board of Supervisors simply will not listen to the people of Orange County," he said. "I don't think we're going to lose."
The new measure promotes the park as a "unique civic resource" that will generate economic benefits from tourism and education, and by providing critically needed amenities to attract upscale businesses.
Demand for air travel to and from Orange County can be accommodated elsewhere, the measure insists, including at an expanded Los Angeles International and John Wayne airports.
While an El Toro airport would generate about 200,000 car trips a day, the park would mean only about 95,000, planners estimated.
Included Monday in materials describing the new park was a map purporting to show how a wildlife corridor along the southern edge of the Marine base would allow animal migration from wild lands to the east and west.
The county's airport plan shows a nearly identical wildlife corridor along the edge of the base. Park proponents have scoffed at the county's plan, saying the noise, traffic and pollution from an airport would be harmful to wildlife.
Initiative supporters are expected to deliver the measure to the registrar of voters this week. The Board of Supervisors could vote to place it on the March 2002 ballot, but the board's pro-airport majority is unlikely to do so.
Supporters will have to collect 71,206 voter signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. Once it qualifies, no government money can be spent to advocate for or against it.