In the latest twist in the El Toro airport debate, Orange County supervisors on Tuesday unexpectedly delayed for another week a pivotal vote to approve the airfield, bowing to demands that the public needed more time to comment on the plan.
Supervisors have been deluged with letters and e-mails asking them to reopen public comments since last week's release of an airspace analysis by the Federal Aviation Administration. The county ended public comment on the plan on Sept. 4 but hasn't voted to approve it.
Waiting another week won't necessarily alter the timetable for federal approval that the county has set for its airport plan; officials hope to have the base transferred to their control by April. But the delay could allow time for powerful voices to add their arguments against moving forward with the county's plan.
As envisioned by county officials, El Toro would become the second-largest airport in Southern California after Los Angeles International. Supervisors had been expected to narrowly approve an airport handling 18.8 million passengers annually by 2020, with future growth possible.
The FAA concluded in its report that the county's airport design could be operated safely at the closed Marine base. But the FAA warned that the plan's northerly takeoffs would delay flights arriving at John Wayne and Long Beach airports, disrupting flight schedules across Southern California.
The county wants about two-thirds of planes to depart El Toro to the east, with heavier jets using the longer northern runway. Planes would land from the south over Laguna Woods.
Villa Park City Councilman Robert E. McGowan, a former airline pilot and air-traffic controller, welcomed the delay, saying that the county must respond to the airspace issues raised by the FAA. McGowan has been promoting an alternative airport layout that was tacitly endorsed by the FAA report as less intrusive on airspace.
That plan calls for landings from the north and departures to the south, eventually from a rebuilt runway. The east-west runway would be removed.
Charles Griffin, who created the runway alternative favored by McGowan, said supervisors have summarily rejected any technical arguments--including the FAA's--that differ with their plan. He and McGowan have asked the Air Line Pilots Assn., which has criticized the county's plan for five years, and the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. to formally comment on the FAA report within the next week.
"They haven't been listening to me, but maybe [someone else] can get to them," said Griffin, a retired aerospace engineer from Newport Beach who hopes to place his Reasonable Airport Alternative on the ballot this year.
For a time, it appeared that supervisors might allow additional public comments on the airport before voting on it Tuesday. However, Supervisor Todd Spitzer argued that if comments were allowed, the public should have advance notice. Failing to do that would violate the state's open-meetings law, said Spitzer, echoing an argument made Friday in a letter to supervisors by a coalition of South County cities opposed to the new airport.
Board Chairwoman Cynthia P. Coad, who broached the idea of taking more testimony, called an hourlong lunch break so county officials could confer. After the break, Coad announced the one-week delay.
"I don't believe it is necessary [under the law] to reopen the public hearing; however, this is obviously an important issue to the people of Orange County," Coad said.
County officials have stressed the FAA report's pronouncement that an El Toro airport could be operated safely but have downplayed the efficiency problems.
In a memo sent Monday to supervisors, Gary Simon, the county's top El Toro planner, criticized the FAA report for relying on "inflated numbers" and "crude methodology" to examine traffic flows at El Toro and other airports. Simon called critical conclusions by the FAA's national airspace consultant, the Mitre Corp., "materially inaccurate." But delaying the vote was within the board's discretion, he said.
Such attacks on the FAA's official airspace consultant only harm the county's credibility, Spitzer said.
"Of all of the agencies and individuals [county officials have] criticized and tried to discredit, the only entity that has been discredited in this El Toro debate is the county of Orange," Spitzer said Tuesday, in pushing for the delay.
El Toro foes hope to place a measure on the March ballot to erase airport zoning approved by voters in 1994.
The new zoning would allow a large urban park and other development. Airport supporters have criticized the Great Park plan as being too expensive to develop without a tax increase.
A panel of appeals court judges in San Diego County has scheduled a hearing next month to consider arguments about whether the park measure should be allowed before voters.
Airport supporters argued successfully in Orange County Superior Court that the measure's ballot title and summary were misleading.
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