El Toro's Future Stirs a Simmering Feud : Transportation: If the Marine base is shut down, two politically savvy, well-funded grass-roots groups are ready to face off. The issue: whether the facility should be used as a commercial airport.

TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

While Orange County officials battle plans to close the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station at the highest levels in Washington, rival citizens groups are poised for a gritty ground war.

Facing each other on opposite sides of the base-closure issue are the Newport Beach-based Airport Working Group and the Irvine-based Coalition for a Responsible Airport Solution.

The 1,500-member Airport Working Group covets the El Toro base as a future commercial air facility that could end pressures for expansion of John Wayne Airport. Founded in 1981 to fight jet noise from planes taking off over Newport Beach, the group maintains constant vigilance over airport matters. The group, for example, opposes a plan to extend the main runway at John Wayne and the efforts of air cargo carriers to land there.

But people in neighboring cities don't want the airport's problems transferred to their communities. Residents of Irvine, Laguna Hills, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo and Dana Point banded together in 1987 to fight all efforts to allow civilian use of El Toro. They formed the Coalition for a Responsible Airport Solution to block commercial use of the Marine base, which is slated for closure.

Last Friday, Defense Secretary Les Aspin recommended closing eight major military bases in California, including El Toro, and 23 other large installations nationwide.

Aspin's list now goes to the independent Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which is scheduled to begin hearings today. The commission has until July 1 to make its recommendations and send them to the President and Congress. If neither disapproves them, the panel's proposals would take effect Sept. 1.

County officials have estimated that El Toro's closure--which would eliminate 1,562 civilian and 4,738 military jobs--could mean the loss of between $400 million and $500 million annually. Coupled with the previously planned closure of the Marine Corps Helicopter Air Station at Tustin, the projected annual loss to Orange County could rise to $1 billion.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors has gone on record in opposition to the plan, and the county Chamber of Commerce is devising a strategy to lobby against closing the Marine base. But with Orange County's congressional delegation remaining largely silent over the fate of El Toro, the local lobbying groups are wasting no time staking out positions on use of the base if it is closed.

As it happens, both of the Orange County grass-roots groups involved in the base closure struggle are politically savvy, well-funded and boast members who now serve as mayors, council members and planning commissioners.

Of the two, the Airport Working Group, which favors civilian use of El Toro, is the more prominent because it has a long history of influencing local city and county governments and is better-connected nationally.

Barbara Lichman, a Newport Beach attorney who serves as the working group's executive director, jets back and forth to Washington to brief officials on the concerns of local residents. She also lobbies on behalf of the National Airport Watch Group, which tries to preserve local control of airport noise-abatement regulations all over the country.

"We are pursuing the closure of El Toro most forcefully," Lichman said. "We believe the base is worth more as private property that can be developed to serve many needs than it is as a strictly public property tied to one use by the military. We're not insensitive to the short-term job loss that would result if the base is closed, but we believe that the long-term benefits are what's best for Orange County."

Lichman and other working-group members argue that commercial use of El Toro would substitute safer, quieter aircraft for the combat jets now there.

"It will be a much safer facility than John Wayne Airport is with its runway of only 5,700 feet," she said. The El Toro base has runways extending 8,000 to 10,000 feet.

Lichman also argues that the huge size of the base--4,700 acres--would mean that not all of the land would be needed for airport operations, allowing for much of it to be leased or sold at a profit to help pay for base-conversion costs. John Wayne Airport occupies fewer than 600 acres.

Lichman's group is prepared for a costly fight, having recently raised more than $25,000 through a direct-mail campaign. Over the years, the working group has raised more than $300,000.

Through the voluntary contributions, her group retains lawyers, noise consultants and a public relations firm. Among its members are Newport Beach Mayor Clarence J. Turner and Planning Commission chairman Tom Edwards.

The Airport Working Group was a participant in the 1985 court settlement that limits John Wayne's capacity to 8.4 million passengers annually. Currently, the airport serves about six million passengers a year, but various studies point to a demand for travel that could mean more than 20 million passengers a year by 2010.

"The airport is what propelled several of us into city politics," Newport Beach's Turner said. "It remains one of our biggest concerns."

Airport Working Group members were also active in the Airport Site Coalition, a blue-ribbon group that studied potential airport locations under a Federal Aviation Administration grant several years ago. In 1990, the Airport Site Coalition picked four possible locations for a new regional airport. But despite heavy involvement by working group members, the site coalition excluded the El Toro base.

The reasons were mainly political and technical, and had a lot to do with the Pentagon's vehement opposition to giving up the base, the close proximity of residents who opposed the idea and costly modifications needed for existing runways and nearby mountaintops.

The site coalition's 1990 studies showed that it would cost about $6.8 billion (in 1989 dollars) to convert El Toro into a medium-haul civilian airport that could handle 7.5 million passengers a year and would have a separate air cargo terminal. That estimate, however, assumed the federal government would sell the land rather than give it up for free. The purchase price was estimated to be $5 billion, with site improvements consuming an additional $1.8 billion.

Among the Airport Site Coalition participants who got El Toro dropped from consideration was William A. (Art) Bloomer, the former commanding general at the base. He is now an Irvine city councilman.

Bloomer is one of the founding members of the Coalition for a Responsible Airport Solution and has helped draw support for the battle against commercial use of El Toro from surrounding communities, especially Leisure World, which is in the path of jets landing at the base.

The group has even received financial support from the Golden Rain Foundation, owners of Leisure World.

Most in the group that opposed commercial air traffic at the Marine base feared that it would generate too much noise and ground traffic on area roads. Bloomer, however, simply believes that the base is critical to national defense.

"I'm different," Bloomer said. "I concede that if the military isn't going to be there, then a commercial airport is the highest, best use of that land."

Still, Bloomer believes that converting the base to civilian use would be difficult and costly.

For one thing, he said, the main departure runway goes uphill, which means jet engines would have to work harder and planes would roll farther before reaching take-off speeds.

Also, the parallel landing runways are too close together to accommodate the wing spans of today's civilian jetliners. What's more, the tops of several nearby hills would have to be bulldozed in order for heavily laden passenger and cargo planes to clear them with a sufficient safety margin.

Bloomer added that toxic materials deposited on the base would have to be removed.

Former Irvine Mayor Sally Anne Sheridan is a founding member of the coalition against developing the base for commercial air traffic, as is Lake Forest council member Marcia Rudolph, the group's current chairwoman.

"The fact that El Toro is on the base-closure list is very worrisome," Rudolph said. "We'll be developing an approach to actively opposing this with all of the knowledge and political pressure that the community can bring to bear on the decision makers."

Although Orange County Supervisor Thomas F. Riley opposes the base closure, he once blocked Irvine's attempt to annex the facility to prevent civilian use. Riley said the base should remain a county resource.

Despite official efforts to keep the base open as a military facility, the coalition has its work cut out.

That's because the organization is not only up against the Airport Working Group, but several other organizations as well.

There is, for example, the Orange County Cities Airport Authority, made up of the cities of Anaheim, Garden Grove, Newport Beach and Stanton. For years, while operating under a variety of names, this group has fought for commercial use of the Marine base. The group's executive director, Ken Delino, is assistant to the city manager of Newport Beach. Two years ago, Delino's group, funded by member cities, paid for a consultant's study that concluded El Toro was suitable for commercial airline use.

The group has even mailed hundreds of colorful brochures with artist's renderings of a passenger terminal at the Marine base linked to other facilities by monorail.

There is also the Committee for El Toro Airport Tomorrow, whose executive director, Joseph E. Irvine, previously headed a business-oriented organization that supported the recent $310-million expansion of John Wayne.

Last year, Irvine said, his newest group was supported in part by Federal Express, which has lobbied federal officials to allow its jets to use El Toro runways.

This year, however, the group that is pro-commercial use of El Toro is still organizing itself. The group is currently led by Irvine, former county Planning Commission member Earl Wooden and travel agent James McClure.

"We were initially trying to get joint use of El Toro for air cargo carriers," Irvine said. "But now we're going for the whole enchilada."

Times correspondent Tom McQueeney contributed to this report.

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