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El Toro Airport Advocates Lost to a United Suburbia

Land use: Lifestyle concerns rallied more residents than the improved air and shipping connections.


The hundreds of thousands of residents across Orange County who battled a commercial airport at El Toro celebrated a common victory this past week: the triumph of suburbia.

For anti-airport forces, the fate of the former Marine Corps Air Station--the bulk of which is now headed for limited development and a park--was all about quality of life. The airport represented much more than the number of flights per day or decibels per takeoff or pounds of pollutants. It meant surrendering their sanctuary to the urban ills of elsewhere.

In the process, a political base was created and it matured in Orange County's sleepy southern half, the side where people drove home each night, shut the garage door and breathed a sigh of relief.

The El Toro fight was viewed "as a Scud missile attack on the suburban lifestyle," said Cheryl Katz, who conducts polling for the Los Angeles Times' Orange County edition and has surveyed public attitudes on El Toro since 1993, when the base was targeted for closure.

"People were in fear for their way of life and it got them motivated to take action in a very primal, territorial way," she said. "To the [pro-airport] side, it was more of a planning issue. There wasn't the perceived threat to one's way of life."

As it happened, after eight years of fighting, the triumph by airport foes came so quickly that anyone out of town for a few weeks might have missed it.

In rapid succession, Orange County voters on March 5 rezoned the 4,700-acre Marine base for a park, nature preserve and limited development--discarding airport zoning that was narrowly approved in 1994. County supervisors followed on April 16 by allowing Irvine to take over the property, ending a county-based planning effort that consumed more than $50 million.

Last week, the Navy sealed the deal by announcing that it would sell the property to private owners under Irvine's development plans.

No one is quite sure what will become of the base, other than it likely won't be an airport. A proposed initiative to restore airport zoning has until August to qualify for the November ballot; a lawsuit against the March 5 vote has yet to work its way through the courts. The Navy, however, could cripple those efforts by selling the first parts of property this summer.

Argument for Airport Was Purely Monetary

The argument for an airport was always a monetary one: The added dollars, supporters said, would enhance Orange County's position in the global economy. The plan was to build a terminal that would serve as many as 29 million passengers a year--later downsized to 19 million--and use El Toro's existing runways. It would be the second-largest airport in Southern California, behind Los Angeles International.

A new local airport was needed, supporters argued, because John Wayne Airport is too small and could never expand enough to accommodate the flying public and tons of cargo now sent by freeway to other airports. Orange County needed to accommodate 30 million airline passengers a year by 2025, airport supporters said--a far cry from John Wayne's handling of 7 million in 2001.

Most people in Orange County actually agreed with the notion that building the new airfield would improve the economy, said Stan Oftelie, executive director of the Orange County Business Council, which supported an airport at the base. That didn't sway opponents, who saw it as forever changing the character of the county.

"From an economic development point of view, an El Toro airport still makes good common fiscal sense," Oftelie said. "But it ignited passions in people who didn't believe it or didn't care if it was true. [Fighting the airport] was a way to protect their quality of life, for those who are paying a premium for a lifestyle in Orange County."

Among the strongest supporters for the new airfield were the three lawmakers who made up a slim majority on the Board of Supervisors. They repeatedly voted to press ahead with the airport, even in the face of weakening public support for the county's plan.

The tide had progressively turned from the airport's approval in 1994, when the county was staggering out of the recession and voters were more responsive to the lure of jobs and economic growth.

As the financial picture improved, airport opponents pounded home to voters that the county's economy was thriving just fine without an international airport. They said the airfield would only worsen Orange County's imbalance in its jobs-to-housing ratio because airport workers wouldn't be able to afford to live in South County. And the airport wasn't needed, they said, because John Wayne and other airports throughout the region could handle Orange County passengers.

At every turn, though, the debate always returned to quality of life: "Many north Orange County residents realize that south Orange County is a 'nicer' place and are looking to move down south and would not want to spoil south Orange County with the airport," said one post last week on an anti-airport Web site message board.

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