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Newport Beach wary of report pushing expansion of airport operations

O.C. Grand Jury probes John Wayne Airport's economic impact
O.C. panel says caps on John Wayne Airport's operations restrict its economic impact

A recent report by the Orange County Grand Jury suggesting that John Wayne Airport's operating constraints are blunting its potential impact on the local economy is ruffling feathers in Newport Beach, where residents have long fought to keep the roar of jets over their homes to a minimum.

"There's a lot wrong with it," Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff said about the report Wednesday, adding that the findings hinged on "a lot of speculation."

The grand jury, he said, didn't ask the city for input.

The report, which was released last week, comes as the county is in the midst of the environmental review phase of a process to extend the agreement that places caps on the airport's operations.

The current agreement, which resulted from a 1985 legal settlement aimed at curbing the airport's effects on the surrounding community, is set to expire in 2015.

If approved as proposed — after months of negotiations between the settlement's parties, including Newport Beach, the county and two Newport resident advocacy groups — the extension would allow stepped increases in annual passenger caps effective through 2030, as well as more departures.

The airport's strict curfews are governed by a separate county ordinance. Under the proposed deal struck by the settlement parties last year, those curfews would be in place until 2035 — a major selling point for the city.

The grand jury, however, found that the operational limits keep the airport from capitalizing on growing demand for flights and becoming a greater contributor to a more robust county economy.

"The Settlement Agreement operating constraints significantly impair John Wayne Airport's ability to serve future demand," the report says.

The document recommends that county and airport officials consider opening up the curfews once newer models of jets are introduced that are quieter during takeoff.

But Kiff said that was too speculative to be the basis of any action plan.

"Someday fleets might be a lot quieter," he said. "Someday jets might leap straight up into the air ... but we don't know that."

Among the report's other recommendations are that officials explore changing the airport's name to John Wayne International Airport, and building a cellphone waiting lot for cars picking up passengers.

It also suggests lowering the airport's long-term parking fees to offset what it found were 3% to 24% more expensive commercial fares compared to other local airports.

Such a move would lure more leisure travelers, who might otherwise head to Long Beach or L.A./Ontario International Airports.

Kiff said that approach is counterproductive because, as he put it, "Ontario is begging for customers."

Overall, the report read as "kind of one-sided," said Marko Popovich, president of Stop Polluting Our Newport, one of the advocacy groups included in the settlement negotiations.

"It's looking at the potential economic benefit without looking at the residential property values," he said.

Popovich added that he hoped the Board of Supervisors keeps in mind the long hours spent delicately negotiating the proposed agreement extension when it officially responds to the report within 90 days, as required by law.

"We hope they'll listen to public opinion on this," he said.

Supervisor John Moorlach, whose district includes Newport Beach, said he hadn't had a chance to thoroughly review the report, but the title, "Maximizing the Benefits of John Wayne Airport to Better Serve Orange County," was disconcerting.

"From my memory, 'maximizing,' was used," he said. "I wasn't at all amused by the choice of that word."

He said he was disappointed that the grand jury hadn't spoken with him for the report.

"We're trying to find a fair balance between air carriers and the residents," he said. "And we're working diligently to have an extension to the settlement agreement that's fair to everybody."

Airport spokeswoman Courtney Wiercioch said that staff members were working with the county to weigh possible responses to go before the supervisors and that she couldn't comment on its findings.

But, she said, "we noticed that they were complimentary about our role in the community, and we certainly appreciate that."

jill.cowan@latimes.com

Twitter: @JillCowan

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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