The fight over whether a new Orange County airport will be built at the closed El Toro Marine base has consumed $80 million in public funds since 1994, with more to come as the county prepares for a fourth vote on the issue in March.
Each side has spent roughly the same amount--$40 million.
For airport foes, all of the money has come from property and sales taxes paid by residents in nine south Orange County cities. For airport backers, the bulk of the funds has come from parking and concession-stand sales at Orange County's existing airport, John Wayne.
The diversion of funds to the airport fight represents a healthy chunk of spending: It's nearly two years' worth of Orange County's share of money from state taxes on cigarettes. It's equal to the total of first baseman Mo Vaughn's six-year contract with the Anaheim Angels. "Space tourist" Dennis Tito could have made four trips into orbit.
The level of public spending to influence opinions about El Toro may be a first, said Sheldon Kamieniecki, dean of political science at USC. In other places, residents may be as committed to their causes, but their city governments have few, if any, resources to throw into the fight.
"When there's so much at stake and you have the resources, this is what's going to happen," Kamieniecki said. "You have a real free-for-all going on."
The South County cities' fight to stop the airport is the most extensive effort against a public works project in California, said Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, a key promoter of a plan to replace the air base with a county central park.
The question of what will become of El Toro continues to consume Orange County nearly eight years after the base was placed on the federal closure list. The issue was first brought to the ballot in 1994, resulting in narrow approval of an international airport.
Irvine, which borders El Toro to the south and west, has contributed more than half of the public funds spent against the airport plan. The city is promoting a complex of parks, museums, universities and wildlife habitats for the former air base, a project called the Great Park.
Irvine Alone Has Spent $15.6 Million in 2 Years
In attempts to sway public opinion, both sides have enlisted high-priced consultants to design and produce brochures and television ads. Lawyers and lobbyists have been hired to defend their clients' interests. Technical consultants were placed on the payroll to pore over every statistic, chart and table.
Irvine alone has spent $15.6 million on El Toro in the last two years. Most of the money went toward studies and seeking public input for the city's attempts to annex the base.
An additional $10.6 million during the same time has come from the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, made up of Irvine, Dana Point, Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita.
Irvine and Lake Forest contributed the most to the group effort through their annual budgets, approved each June. This fiscal year, for example, the two cities contributed about $800,000 each. The other cities, also as part of budget approvals, paid about $400,000 each. Aliso Viejo is preparing to become the group's 10th city member.
Since June 2000, anti-airport forces have sent 22 brochures to 500,000 households countywide and paid for eight full-page newspaper ads.
"If we can stop the airport, it's money well spent," Irvine Councilman Greg Smith said last year.
The spending on the pro-airport side has gone mostly toward studies required to measure the project's effect on the environment.
Pro-airport forces got a much later start in the public relations arena. The first such spending approvals by the county came in March, and the county and Newport Beach approved additional expenses earlier this month. County and city officials said the combined $7.7-million spending splurge was an attempt to make up for only about $1 million spent the year before.
Newport's money, like that of the South County cities, is from tax dollars. The city has its own vested interest in El Toro: The question of whether to expand John Wayne Airport hinges on whether El Toro's airfield is converted to commercial use. The base closed in July 1999.
The first mailer and cable-TV ads financed by Newport Beach hit last week. The messages suggest that the proposed park at El Toro would gobble up tax money to build and maintain.
The blitz comes as the South County cities say they will curtail their spending, citing the upcoming circulation of a petition to place an anti-airport initiative on the March 2002 ballot. In fact, they now propose to sue their opponents, claiming Newport Beach violated a state law barring the use of public funds for ballot advocacy.
The proposed measure, which would replace airport zoning with a park, would be the fourth public vote on the base.