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State Goes to Court to Get Copters Off the Ground : Medfly: The Food and Agriculture Department seeks an order forcing Fullerton to allow insecticide-spraying aircraft to be launched from its airport

The California Department of Food and Agriculture will seek a court order today that would force the city of Fullerton to open its airport to a squadron of helicopters used in the aerial battle against fruit flies, state officials said Monday.

With Fullerton officials adamant against the state’s using the airport, the state has no alternative but to ask a Superior Court judge to force Fullerton to cooperate, Deputy Atty. Gen. Clifford Lee said.

Attorneys for the city plan to argue that Fullerton is not the proper location from which to stage the aerial assault on the Mediterranean and Mexican fruit flies, City Manager William C. Winter said.

Buena Park officials said they plan to join Fullerton in the fight. Monday night, the City Council passed an emergency resolution asking Gov. George Deukmejian to keep the helicopters from the Fullerton airport on the grounds that it is too close to residential areas.

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Fullerton officials were told by state officials Friday to prepare the airport for the arrival of the helicopters, crew and equipment on Wednesday. Fullerton officials also were told to expect as many as four weeks of twice-weekly nighttime spraying runs over Orange and Los Angeles counties, although only three more nights of spraying are actually scheduled.

Until last Thursday, the helicopters were based at the El Monte Airport.

The helicopter staging area is being moved to Fullerton mostly because of noise complaints from El Monte residents, Lee said.

“We know that people don’t like helicopters flying out of their airports, (but) the burden of that should be shared by other communities,” Lee said.

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Because of the noise complaints, Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum had pressured state officials to find another airport, since the El Monte airport had been used since the beginning of the malathion spraying program in January, said Gera Curry, spokeswoman for the Food and Agriculture Department.

Fullerton seemed like the best choice for a new staging area because it is closer to the Garden Grove Medfly infestation area, which is the largest zone still being sprayed in the two counties, she said.

State officials promised Schabarum on May 11 that the helicopters would be out of El Monte by May 17, Judy Hammond, a Schabarum spokeswoman, said Monday. At the time, state officials had expected to be finished with all spraying over Los Angeles and Orange counties. However, with spraying now set to continue until at least mid-June, Schabarum decided to hold the state to its promise, she said.

“They’ve assured us they won’t use El Monte anymore,” Hammond said.

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Continued use of the airport would have been unfair to El Monte residents, Hammond said. Those residents have had to put up with helicopters flying overhead several nights a week, often until 3 a.m., she said.

It is just those late-night flights that now worry Fullerton and Buena Park officials.

Buena Park residents have complained about the noise at the Fullerton airport constantly over the past several years, Buena Park Mayor Donald Bone said.

“The last thing we need at this time is for helicopters to be coming off the pad at 9 o’clock at night and coming back and refueling several times, subjecting our residents to the noise and safety problems that go with it,” Bone said.

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The Medfly helicopters typically leave the airport at about 9 p.m. and return every couple of hours to refuel and refill their tanks with insecticide. The helicopters generally fly in formation at an altitude of about 500 feet.

“We are noisy, there’s no denying that, and it is an inconvenience for people trying to sleep,” Curry said.

On the positive side, Curry said, there are only three nights left in the spraying schedule for Orange and Los Angeles counties. Wednesday’s spraying will include Garden Grove and Panorama City. On May 30, Garden Grove and Compton will be sprayed. And the last scheduled spraying is June 13 over Compton, she said.

If more fruit flies are found in Los Angeles or Orange counties, though, spraying could continue through July.

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“If more flies are found, all bets are off,” Curry said.

Meanwhile, Orange County Supervisors Roger R. Stanton and Harriett M. Wieder, both ardent foes of aerial spraying, are expected to introduce a resolution today that would direct the county’s agricultural commissioner to cease cooperating with the aerial spraying program wherever possible.

That proposal is outlined in a draft obtained Monday.

“It’s incredibly frustrating, but we just don’t have any options,” Supervisor Don R. Roth said in a recent interview.

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Every two weeks, the supervisors are required under state law to extend a state of emergency regarding the Medfly. Failing to extend that emergency could expose the county to lawsuits, attorneys warn, but voting to prolong it has created a tense political climate for the board, which does not want to be perceived as supporting the spraying program.

In addition to directing the county’s agricultural commissioner to cease cooperation with the state, the resolution also “demands an immediate halt to all aerial pesticide spraying over urban areas.”

In an accompanying letter, Wieder and Stanton urge their colleagues to join them in supporting the resolution and add that they have been assured by the county’s legal staff that the resolution would not affect the county’s legal exposure.

Beyond expressing the county’s opposition to continued spraying, the practical effects of adopting the resolution are unclear, officials said. The agricultural commissioner also works for the state, which would likely overrule the county.

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Times staff writer Jim Newton and correspondent Lynda Natali contributed to this report.


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