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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Wrong Route to an Airport

June 02, 2002

Much of Orange County's public debate over the past decade was consumed with the plan for a major international airport at El Toro. Withdrawal symptoms now can be found everywhere after this year's decisive ballot initiative produced an alternative park plan for the closed Marine base. In retrospect, we can see just how poorly the discussion of any future role for Orange County in the regional aviation picture was conducted.

Three remnants of the airport puzzle fell completely out of play in recent weeks. Start with the county's airport planning structure, set up with fanfare and given high-profile independence several years ago. It became the focus of a turf battle between the Board of Supervisors and a former county executive. Today it has vanished, its executive director bought out and many of its employees absorbed into other county departments. Even the most ardent airport supporters acknowledged that there was no point in having a powerful independent agency if it had no airport to plan.

A second bellwether is the decision this month by the Southern California Regional Airport Authority to begin studying ways to divert Orange County passengers to other regional airport facilities. The authority did not actually declare an airport at El Toro dead, and took note of litigation over the parks vote that is intended to keep the airport idea alive. But for years the thinking of regional aviation and transportation groups about Southern California airport capacity was focused on El Toro, and the premise that it would play a significant role in the region's aviation picture.

It is significant that planners in other counties saw the recent vote for a park plan as a dagger through the heart of the airport idea that prompted them to remove El Toro from their blueprints. Given the obstacles now to the revival of an El Toro plan, the agency was right to begin thinking about how passengers and cargo from Orange County would get to other airports in future years.

While the biggest regional agency, the Southern California Assn. of Governments, still has El Toro in its forecasts, one more legal defeat certainly will erase it.

While the airport proponents argue in a lawsuit that the park initiative usurps the planning authority of local county supervisors, they face a big problem with their reasoning.

The initiative was the very zoning-change remedy suggested by a Los Angeles judge when he overturned a previous anti-airport ballot measure. So the question would have to be, if rezoning is not a solution available to airport opponents, what remedy would remain?

With no solution, it would seem to follow that local officials can operate beyond the reach of legal challenge by citizens.

Finally, last week, the proponents of an alternative runway plan for El Toro said that their Reasonable Airport, Park and Nature Preserve was off the November ballot and maybe for good. These advocates of a different runway configuration never really made it to center stage in airport planning, even though it should have been obvious from the beginning that an alternate airport plan deserved a close look.

Instead, the so-called V-plan proponents largely were relegated to gadfly status.

So Orange County ended up with a local planning authority that never took other aviation ideas seriously and eventually folded when it no longer had any airport to plan.

The people with the other ideas gave up. And regional planners began scratching El Toro from their plans.

These three developments are now visible as signposts of a planning process gone haywire.

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