El Toro

Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Backers of Orange County, Calif.-area airport proposal refuse to be grounded
The Orange County (CA) Register

In talking about his accomplishments on the Irvine City Council, Chris Mears quickly mentions helping to “drive the nail in the El Toro airport coffin.” Several organizations are trying very hard to pry that coffin back open.

Is the airport really dead?

“I don’t think so,” said Tom Naughton, president of the Airport Working Group, one of several entities still laboring to bring passenger service to El Toro.

AWG supports a proposal by Los Angeles Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski to create a regional airport authority such as the one in San Diego, which would have power to make decisions about the location and level of air service throughout the area. It likely would require state legislative action to create such an authority.

Among the groups supporting the idea is the Orange County Regional Airport Authority, which also worked for an El Toro airport. “El Toro Airport is still on the table; maybe the political climate will change,” said Jack Wagner, executive director.

To Naughton, Wagner and other airport supporters, no setback is fatal or permanent. Housing projects such as Woodbury noware springing up in areas around the base that had been kept clear, but Naughton says that so far, the developments are outside noise-limit areas for commercial aircraft.

But another obstacle was placed in the airport proponents’ way Tuesday. County supervisors voted 3-2 to oppose any legislation that might germinate in Sacramento calling for the old El Toro property to be used for anything other than what it now is zoned for — the Great Park, a mix of wilderness areas, athletic fields, museums, farms, shops, schools and homes.

The fight over whether to convert the old El Toro air base into a commercial airport or to develop something else consumed Orange County for a decade.

Advocates said the region needs another airport and cited economic benefits; opponents said south county’s quality of life would crash. In all, advocates and opponents of the airport spent $100 million. And yet, like aircraft circling the fog, airport proponents seize on any window in the clouds.

Undeterred by Los Angeles’ experience last year in petitioning the U.S. Department of Transportation, the city of Fullerton earlier this month asked the department to intercede in rescuing El Toro for a commercial airport.

The department had returned L.A.’s letter, instead referring the city to the Navy, which said it would proceed with the auction.

That’s still what the Navy says it plans to do, beginning Jan. 5 at an online auction similar to that used to sell the land at the Tustin helicopter base.

Bill Turner is keenly aware of the date. He sent out 80 letters earlier this month to leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives asking for a congressional and Justice Department investigation of El Toro’s closing.

“We think it has been fraudulent from the beginning,” said Turner, who represents El Toro Today, which operates a Web site of the same name. The group contends that the Irvine Co. engineered the closure of the base so it could develop surrounding open land.

Not so, says thecompany. “We were as surprised as anyone else at the base closure,” said John Christensen, a spokesman.

El Toro airport opponents say resurrecting a commercial airport at the old base is less likely than Christopher Cox jumping to the Democratic Party, but they nonetheless plan to remain vigilant.

“Once the base is sold, we will have crossed a major threshold,” said Beth Krom, mayor of Irvine. She says Rep. Cox, R-Newport Beach, has been working very hard to get the base sold, freeing Irvine to develop the Great Park.

Krom said it’s time to move on and address what she and others see as a major challenge facing Southern California — ground-transit systems that will relieve freeway congestion and get passengers to airports such as Ontario that want more air traffic.