A countywide telephone survey of more than 1,000 residents by Chapman University shows wide support for the idea of replacing Orange County's plans for an airport at El Toro with a large urban park.
Nearly two-thirds of residents--64.5%--said they would support a March 2002 ballot measure to transform the 4,700-acre former Marine base into a park. The idea was opposed by 27%, with the rest either having no opinion or refusing to give one.
"Given the data, the public appears to be quite supportive of a park at El Toro rather than an airport," said Fred Smoller, director of the Ludie and David C. Henley Social Sciences Research Lab at Chapman and head of the school's political science department.
In an interesting twist, half of the residents told university pollsters that they thought an airport at El Toro would be built anyway within the next 10 years. The airport plan is backed by a majority of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
Responding to a separate question, a quarter of residents said construction of an El Toro airport was the best way of meeting the county's air travel needs. One in five said John Wayne Airport should handle more passengers to fill that need, with the same percentage saying there already is enough airport capacity in Southern California.
Only 4% of Orange County residents favored expanding Los Angeles International Airport to handle more flights, according to the survey.
This week, foes of an El Toro airport delivered an initiative intended for the March 2002 ballot that would replace airport zoning at the base, approved by voters in 1994, with open-space, nature preserve and "educational/park" zoning. The city of Irvine has proposed a redevelopment plan called the Great Park.
Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, a key proponent of the park, said surveys in recent years have shown that Orange County residents oppose the county's airport plan by a 2-to-1 ratio. The same margin supports the great park, he said.
"It's clear what people want," Agran said Wednesday. "What is unclear is whether representative government is working in this county. To the extent it isn't, people will take matters into their own hands [with the initiative]. That's at once a triumph for citizen activists but it's a very, very sad commentary on the quality of representation we have" from pro-airport supervisors.
Bruce Nestande, president of the pro-airport Citizens for Jobs and the Economy, said support for a park isn't surprising, since parks are like "apple pie."
Additionally, the park plan has been promoted by Irvine in two years' worth of mailers and television ads, he said; the city has spent $5 million to develop its plan and twice as much to sell it countywide.
"There's no question that will be difficult to counter," Nestande said. "But they're not going to be able to explain to the people of Orange County how they're going to build all of these facilities, take care of the cleanup [of the base] and pay for all of these costs. It would never be the park that they describe."
Despite favoring the park, survey respondents were less clear about who ultimately should be responsible for deciding if an airport is built at El Toro.
When asked who should make the final decision, the responses were nearly evenly split among county voters, the Board of Supervisors, the state and federal governments, Congress, the Federal Aviation Administration and community representatives near the base.
People apparently aren't yet convinced that they can take on the County Hall of Administration, Agran said.
"This may be a case of citizens underestimating the power of citizen activism in resolving the entire controversy," he said.
The poll of 1,040 residents was conducted by random telephone survey between April 16 and May 1. The survey was conducted in English, Spanish and Vietnamese with only residents at least 18 years old. The margin of error is plus or minus 3% at a 95% confidence level.
Additional questions in the survey will be released Monday. A public forum to discuss the results is scheduled Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Chapman's Beckman Hall, Room 210.