Attorneys for Newport Beach and Orange County have reached a tentative settlement in the long-running litigation over expansion of John Wayne Airport, indicating that a resolution of nearly 15 years of discord may be at hand, The Times has learned.
In court papers submitted late Monday, the attorneys said they have "reached agreement on the basic terms of the settlement" under which Newport Beach homeowners would withdraw their opposition to limited expansion of the airport.
Though terms of the settlement were not disclosed in the documents, sources close to the negotiations said they provide for a less ambitious expansion plan than originally contemplated. Service would be limited to 8.4 million passengers per year during the next 20 years, the sources added.
The original master plan called for 10.24 million passengers a year. At its current level of service, the airport would serve slightly less than 4.1 million passengers annually.
Under the agreement, the new terminal would be slightly smaller than the 390,000-square-foot facility envisioned in the master plan, and the bulk of the new passengers to be served would be carried on extremely quiet jets, such as the British Aerospace BAe-146, the sources said.
The documents, submitted to the court after its 5 p.m. filing deadline Monday, are expected to be signed by an appellate judge sometime today. At that time, county officials will be clear of the most stringent restrictions imposed by Superior Court Judge Philip E. Schwab Jr. earlier this year when he held the county in contempt of court for adopting the new master plan and increasing jet departures from 41 a day to 55.
Under terms of the agreement, county officials will be free to resume planning for airport expansion and for conversion of the most noise-plagued residential areas of Santa Ana Heights to office parks. However, the county would be barred from launching construction of the new terminal and runway improvements until a final settlement is reached.
Attorneys for the county, Newport Beach and Stop Polluting Our Newport (SPON), the homeowners' organization that is a party to the suit, said it could be several weeks before the settlement is complete. However, sources said that both the Newport Beach City Council, meeting Monday in closed session, and the homeowners' group, meeting last week, have endorsed the basic terms of the settlement.
Thomas F. Riley, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said the board will consider the proposed agreement during a closed session this morning. He said attorneys will advise the board today whether to actually take a vote on the matter or make a public announcement, though Riley said he hoped he would be able to issue a statement which he has already prepared.
"Until the board meets, I just don't want to comment," he said. "After 10 1/2 years as a member of the Board of Supervisors and, before that, as a person who lives in the impacted area, I'm just going to be very careful until the t's are crossed and the i's are dotted."
Riley added: "I think it's obvious that this is an item that is probably as significant as anything that has happened at John Wayne Airport in the entire time that it has been under county ownership."
Newport Beach Mayor Philip Maurer said the city and county "naturally have some framework for an agreement, but that's in executive session and I can't discuss it. . . . Basically, we're still negotiating."
Barbara Lichman, executive director of the Airport Working Group, a coalition of homeowner organizations in Newport Beach, called it "an agreement to agree at some point in the future, and hopefully soon. . . . I would say that it is very meaningful in that finally we are going to be talking about some of these issues, and I think that's very hopeful."
The agreement, should it become final, would settle most of the litigation that has been going on in its present form for nearly five years, and, in one form or another, for nearly 15 years.
The present case involves a Superior Court lawsuit filed by Newport Beach against an earlier airport expansion plan--the case that resulted in Schwab's contempt order--and a more recent federal court case involving the city, the county, several airlines and the federal government.
"The process is a long one, and there is no final settlement until there is a final settlement document," said Steven Pflaum, Newport Beach's special airport counsel.
It was not clear Monday how the apparent 8.4-million-passenger annual ceiling being contemplated would affect the number of jet flights.
The 73 daily flights envisioned in the original master plan would have served 10.24 million passengers a year. But that plan was developed before introduction of the BAe-146, a plane which tested so quietly that it was below the noise threshold at which the county begins requiring daily slot allocations.
Accordingly, PSA, the only airline using the BAe-146 at John Wayne, has applied to be exempted from the 55-flight-per-day ceiling, asking to increase its daily flights to 21 from nine.
County officials are still considering PSA's request and have said they will consider any such requests in light of the physical constraints imposed by the size of the terminal and airport traffic congestion.
However, the current discussions, focusing on a ceiling on passengers rather than flights, appear to make way for phasing in additional quiet jets while preventing a large increase in the number of flights.
It is conceivable, however, that eventual jet flights permitted under the tentative agreement could come close to, or even exceed, the 73 flights envisioned in the original master plan because the BAe-146 is so much smaller than other passenger jets. The BAe-146 seats only 85 passengers, compared to 150 in the McDonnell Douglas MD-80, the aircraft that provided the basis for earlier planning efforts.
However, airport officials have pointed out that the 73-flight-per-day limit could have been exceeded even under the present master plan, since the BAe-146, because of its quietness, does not appear to require a departure slot allocation.
Sources said most of those details will be spelled out in any agreement before it is finally signed by all parties.
In any case, several airlines appear to be moving toward acquisition of the new British jet in advance of any final settlement. AirCal, which just made a large investment in the new Boeing 737/300--quieter than the MD-80 but not as quiet as the BAe-146--has said it is looking at either acquiring the BAe-146 or retrofitting the new Boeing jets to make them as quiet as the British jet.
"We cannot and will not be placed at a competitive disadvantage," said AirCal president David Banmiller in a recent interview with The Times.
Tom Malcolm, attorney for Continental Airlines, said the airline's reaction to the proposed settlement terms would be "very positive," even though the airline now flies only the MD-80 out of John Wayne.
"Long range, we're moving out of those to the 146," he said. "I think that's the way of the future. You can see the Orange County prototype all over the country."
Sources said the proposed settlement terms also address the issue of locating a new airport site, a key issue for Newport Beach officials, by providing that while a site search may continue, the county will not take the lead in the search and will not hold the alternate site hearings later this fall envisioned in the original master plan.
Times staff writer James Granelli contributed to the preparation of this story.