El Toro backers will fight Measure W

 - May 15, 2008, 8:19 AM

California’s March 5 primary vote that nixed plans for a civil airport at the former El Toro Marine Air Station was a body blow to the FAA’s Operational Evolution Plan (OEP) for more national airspace capacity, but El Toro backers will now challenge the election outcome.

The 35 percent of Orange County registered voters who cast ballots opted 57.8 percent to 42.2 percent to rezone the 4,700-acre base from airport use to park, open space, recreational, cultural and educational status. A heavily financed four-year campaign vetoed four 10,000-ft runways and 14,000 acres of surrounding noise buffer land, making it more difficult to meet the FAA’s goal of increasing capacity with new airports. (see AIN, March 2002, page 64).

The General Accounting Office (GAO) said that unless passenger traffic stays at reduced post-September 11 levels, the OEP will “fall far short” of meeting increasing needs. Congress’ investigative arm said that even though other OEP initiatives, if successful, “will add substantial capacity…these efforts are unlikely to prevent delays from becoming worse.” One delay-prone airport is Los Angeles International (LAX), 30 mi west of El Toro. Regional planners have considered a new Orange County International Airport (OCX) as a key to relieving pressure on LAX.

Dave Ellis, a leading  El Toro proponent, said, “We will head to the courts in the next 30 days,” and that some private entities will join cities and joint powers authorities in legal action to save the airport. He stressed the need to put OCX back on track by saying that without it, the Southland’s maximum passenger capacity in 2020 will be only 100 million annual passenger (MAP) boardings even if LAX is expanded to 78 MAP from its present 64 MAP. However, “Regional demand is estimated at 172 MAP by then,” Ellis noted. “What happens to those 72 million passengers?”

A county spokesman previously told AIN that without OCX, John Wayne Orange County Airport (SNA) will soon be saturated, forcing most business and other GA aircraft to be removed from the field. Currently, more than 500 GA aircraft are based there.

Meanwhile, the Navy Department, which before the election was to hand the former base to Orange County Airport this month, said after the vote that it may sell the land to the highest bidder unless it sees a firm non-aviation public use plan by April 23.

Airport backers are likely to argue in court that voters were beguiled into killing the airport by vague promises of a “Great Park” concept, which El Toro foes implied would rival Central Park, Golden Gate Park and San Diego’s Balboa Park. Last year, Superior Court Judge James Gray ruled the measure’s title, “Orange County Central Park And Nature Preserve Initiative,” and its accompanying summary vague and misleading, and ordered Measure W off the C primary ballot. A state appeals panel later placed the initiative back before voters. However, one appellate judge noted that the result could be challenged on the same grounds for which Judge Gray rejected it.

Measure W’s only direct effect was to halt the El Toro Airport. It does not mandate “Great Park” development, provide funding or even designate the agency to create and operate it.