Orange County government leaders are trying to retain a leadership role in the planning for the future of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. But the recent bid by local communities to wrest planning for the air base once it closes is a telling reminder of how much things have changed.
Last week, Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, who has presided over much of the planning for South County, said he would try to find a way to bring maverick cities meaningfully back into the fold of county planning. But the cities that have broken off are threatening to mount a credible claim on being the lead planning agency themselves for the future of the base. And there are signs that some North County cities, which do not have such an abutters’ stake in the planning process, actually may be willing to join forces with the southern cities.
The effect would be to skirt the county entirely as the lead planning entity, although it inevitably would retain jurisdiction on many critical aspects of site planning. On the face of it, the southern cities are saying that they still would prefer to have the county involved if it would really let them have a significant say. However, the subtext of their position is that, based on past experience, the cities don’t really believe that the county will give them a significant enough place at the table.
History offers lessons. Many of these rebellious cities formed in response to a feeling that they were not permitted sufficient “local control” under county government. Having watched what the county’s idea of planning is over recent decades, they are not willing to allow Santa Ana to make crucial, irreversible decisions over their future at El Toro.
If this concern of the cities is taken to its logical extreme, it could have profound long-term implications for decision-making in Orange County. If the cities mount sufficient lobbying efforts among themselves to make important regional planning decisions, they could, in effect, alter part of the mission of county government, rendering it little more than a distributor of services and guardian of unincorporated areas.
The big question is whether any group will gather sufficient momentum so it can present Washington with the united front needed to go forward. The most advisable outcome would be for the county and the cities to work together, as Riley suggests. But there clearly is a true power struggle underway. The county had better be willing to pay much more than lip service to the legitimate wishes and planning claims of southern cities.