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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : El Toro: Voices of All Must Be Heard

It should come as no surprise that as a condition for federal recognition of the Board of Supervisors as the new planning agency for El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, the Pentagon is pressuring Orange County to include Irvine and Lake Forest in the planning process.

Despite the fervent hopes of advocates for a new airport, federal authorities are unlikely to go for any plan that arises from a procedure that does not include participation of surrounding cities. And most important, any suggested reuse plan must represent some kind of consensus that reflects the will of the overall community.

The advocates of a new airport have made no secret of their hope to short-circuit this process and advance their singular reuse idea as the one representing community intention. But whatever they may say, there was not much clarity in the outcome of the ballot measure last November that called for an airport at El Toro. Measure A passed by the narrowest of margins, reflecting little more than the already apparent split between northern and southern communities over the future of the base.

Now the Defense Department suggests that the county may have to delay plans to dismantle the Orange County Reuse Planning Authority. The Pentagon is right to insist that Irvine and Lake Forest be included in the process, for these two communities will bear the most immediate effects of whatever happens at El Toro.

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Backers of Measure A have been saying that the supervisors had no choice but to dismantle the reuse authority and to plan for the future of El Toro as a commercial airport. But nothing has changed in a larger picture that cries out for wider community input on the future of the base. The failure to demonstrate it could prompt the Defense Department to decide to unilaterally draft a reuse plan for the base.

Although considered a remote possibility, that would be a bitter pill to swallow. Orange County would be forfeiting the sacred principle of local control because it botched a simple federal instruction: Give us a plan that reflects the intent of the affected community. The message Washington has been getting, correctly, is that Orange County does not have its act together. The federal government won’t wait forever, given its expectation of closing the facility by 1999.

Whatever Measure A may have required the supervisors to do about planning for an airport that may or may not ever be built, Orange County also had better find some way to plan for other alternatives. If it wishes to get a serious hearing in Washington for any proposal that claims to represent the intention of the community at large, it needs to show that it has listened to all community voices.


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