Airport Pact Drawback: 4 Million Still Can’t Fly

Times County Bureau Chief

Hailed as a major achievement, the agreement reached last month between Newport Beach residents and the Board of Supervisors to permit limited expansion of John Wayne Airport has set the stage for the next political battle.

One vital question is left unresolved by the agreement: What will be done about the 4 million or more passengers annually whose air travel needs will not be met by the John Wayne facility--even after expansion--because of capacity restrictions that formed the basis of the legal-political settlement?

“It’s not going to be easy,” said Todd Nicholson, president of the Industrial League of Orange County, a 700-firm organization representing business interests. “But we really need to begin the process now in terms of answering the needs of the traveling public in the 21st Century. . . . We can’t wait until the John Wayne expansion project is completed in 1991. We have to start now.”

The Industrial League already has offered to act as a clearing house for ideas about how to meet the county’s air travel needs and intends to seek county sponsorship of a request for federal airport planning funds, with other groups also interested in obtaining such subsidies.

In addition to the capacity limit, a key provision of the supervisors’ agreement with Newport Beach requires the county to rescind previous resolutions that declared there are no additional airport sites feasible in Orange County.


Another provision requires the county to promote federal funding of “legitimate” groups seeking to develop an additional airport.

Studies in recent years have recommended additional sites such as the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Santiago Canyon and Chino Hills, with no subsequent decision to pursue any of them. Some of the studies, including a 1981 report by the Southern California Assn. of Governments, a regional planning agency that favored the El Toro site despite Pentagon objections, were subsidized with federal airport planning funds.

But many political activists agree that these and any future studies will merely continue to occupy shelf space unless there is a shift in the political makeup of the county Board of Supervisors or community attitudes, or unless the decision about additional airport sites is taken away from the people and politicians most affected.

None of the current supervisors is willing to accept a new, major commercial aviation facility in his or her district. Moreover, there aren’t three votes on the five-member board for dumping the problem on any individual supervisor who, for example, might be in disfavor.

There also is a serious, objective question about whether any of them should have to “bite the bullet,” as they themselves refer to it, because of a prevailing feeling that the county already may have more than its “fair share” of commercial and military air traffic.

“There’s no way to get around ‘em,” said Newport Beach Mayor Phil Maurer of the Board of Supervisors. “It just one of those things where they have the final say.”

Litigation Ended?

Does the supervisors’ resistance to any movement in the direction of a new airport mean that a key part of the agreement that has supposedly ended years of airport litigation between Newport Beach and the Board of Supervisors is meaningless?

“I don’t know,” Maurer said. “All we can do is hope that things will change.”

The agreement would pave the way for an expansion of John Wayne Airport to a capacity of 4.75 million passengers annually in 1992 and 8.4 million in 2005. The latter figure would be four times the number of passengers the airport is serving now, but well short of the demand for air travel that the county is expected to generate by then.

On the basis of market studies, the county had planned an expansion of the airport to accommodate 12 million passengers a year, but scaled those plans back as part of the compromise agreement to limit airport noise and growth.

Studies by the county and private industry indicate that market demand for airline service in Orange County may in fact reach 14 million to 16 million a year in the first decade of the 21st Century.

FFA, Court Approval Needed

The agreement must still be accepted by the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. District Court Judge Terry M. Hatter Jr., who has presided over John Wayne Airport litigation. The FAA is expected to sign off on the agreement soon, while Hatter has not yet scheduled a court date for considering the settlement.

Nicholson of the Industrial League said his organization will wait to see if Hatter accepts the settlement before seeking county sponsorship of an FAA grant application for study funds.

Barbara Lichman of the Airport Working Group, a homeowners organization that had joined Newport Beach in suing the county over plans to expand John Wayne Airport, said the AWG is eager to participate in the Industrial League’s efforts but is also waiting to see what Hatter does.

“Assuming he signs it, we’ll be very interested in participating,” she said. “It’s true that right now the political situation precludes an additional airport site, but things can change. . . . The current members of the Board of Supervisors won’t be there forever. Supervisor (Ralph) Clark is retiring next year. Supervisor Bruce Nestande is running for lieutenant governor. . . . Nothing lasts forever. Somewhere along the way, there may be enough votes to do something. It will take a few courageous politicians (but) I’m optimistic that they do or will exist.”

Newport Beach’s Maurer said his city will not actively participate in a search for an additional airport site, but other city officials told The Times that the city may join the Inter-County Airport Authority, which for years advocated Chino Hills near Yorba Linda as a possible location. The IAA currently favors no particular site.

The cities of Garden Grove, Anaheim, Stanton and Santa Ana are now the only members of the joint powers authority, which was formed in the 1970s.

In addition, the City of Los Angeles and the counties of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside have created their own joint powers group, the Tri-County Airport Authority. So far, the Orange County Board of Supervisors has refused to join either the Inter-County or Tri-County authorities, based on a reluctance to share any decision-making powers that could lead to a new regional airport being placed inside the county’s boundaries.

New Airport Authority

The Tri-County Airport Authority began operating only two months ago and has not taken actions yet that could affect Orange County.

Anaheim Councilman Irv Pickler, a city representative on the Inter-County Airport Authority, said the agency is actively attempting to persuade Newport Beach and other cities to join. He added that the Authority plans to seek federal planning funds but has not coordinated its efforts with the Industrial League.

“I remain convinced that although it does not look like another airport site is politically feasible, once people see that a particular location will work, they’ll come around and see the benefits to all the people of Orange County,” Pickler said.

But the situation is so ticklish that even the county’s decision to rescind previous resolutions opposing an additional airport site has thrown Irvine and Yorba Linda residents into a dither because they now feel threatened with the possibility that either El Toro or Chino Hills will be considered again as likely locations.

(There has been talk among some interested parties of attempting to get the Pentagon to swap El Toro for Palmdale in Los Angeles County, which would make El Toro available for commercial aviation. But so far the “swap” idea has been described as nothing more than a “trial balloon” by officials involved.)

Meanwhile, Irvine city officials were so incensed that they weren’t even consulted about the county’s action that they have voted to join the remaining litigation against the county involving the plans to expand John Wayne Airport.

Board Chairman Thomas F. Riley has acknowledged that if Irvine officials had been consulted in advance, there would not have been any out-of-court settlement between the county and Newport Beach over John Wayne.

Indeed, sensitivities are so great that the Industrial League refuses to describe its efforts as a search for an additional airport site. League officials refer instead to a search for an air travel “solution.”