Long Beach Airport Ballot Battle Brewing

Saturday, April 9, 2005
Long Beach airport ballot battle brewing
Officials hope to speed environmental report to head off expansion initiative.
By Jason Gewirtz
The Long Beach (CA) Press-Telegram

City officials mobilized this week to thwart a potential ballot initiative over Long Beach Airport terminal improvements by exploring ways to fast-track a key environmental study on the project. But a group that supports larger improvement plans said such efforts may not prevent a battle at the polls.

“A quicker (study) would be fine,” said Randy Gordon, president and CEO of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, and a member of the group considering an initiative. “But that’s not enough.”

At least one council member wary of a terminal expansion considered those words a challenge.

“If that’s not enough,” said Councilwoman Rae Gabelich, “then bring it on.”

On Thursday, Mayor Beverly O’Neill, three council members, the city attorney and city manager met at City Hall to discuss the city’s potential strategies. City officials fear a ballot measure would be divisive, pitting neighborhoods against each other.

“Nothing was decided, per se, as much as we need to think about what we could do to head it off,” said Councilman Patrick O’Donnell, who attended the meeting with Councilwoman Jackie Kell and Councilman Frank Colonna.

At issue is a proposal to expand the airport terminal to accommodate the airport’s nearly 3 million annual visitors and workers.

Opponents of a large terminal, including many who live under the airport flight path, have cited concern that a bigger building could eventually invite additional flights. Supporters have said the existing conditions leave a lousy impression of the city and are not accommodating to travelers.

City staff members and a city airport consultant have recommended that the 58,320-square-foot terminal be expanded to 133,324 square feet, including new waiting areas, baggage claim and concession areas. After two weeks of bitter debate, the City Council on Feb. 8 approved an environmental review that would study a smaller increase to 102,980 square feet.

That review is expected to take about a year to complete. The time frame, and public complaints by JetBlue Airways the airport’s largest tenant prompted terminal proponents to consider a ballot initiative that would bypass the environmental review process.

Last week, a group of community business and civic leaders calling itself the Long Beach Coalition announced that it has completed initial polling to gauge public opinion.

Depending on the wording, a ballot initiative could ask voters to settle the terminal size issue. The item could be placed on the November ballot if the state proceeds with a potential special election on a slate of referendums supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that month.

Long Beach City Manager Jerry Miller said Friday that the city may be able to complete an environmental review in six to nine months.

But Gordon said the group considering the initiative wants more alternatives to be considered as part of the review.

Several council members said that an initiative would be divisive.

“My biggest concern is it clearly would create a major problem with neighborhood versus neighborhood,” Colonna said.

But Gordon disagreed. Opponents, he said, represent a minority.

“There’s a lot of people who feel that the majority of residents in this city feel very strongly that the airport should be modernized and we deserve a more modern, up-to-date airport,” he said.

O’Neill said the city wants to find a middle ground.

“It’s hard to see who really wins in a case like this,” she said.