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Countywide : Think Tank Flies Idea to Ease Woes

A Libertarian think tank says bankrupt Orange County can raise at least $250 million by selling airport-development rights at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and transferring operations at John Wayne Airport to the buyer.

Opponents to such a move contend that federal aviation guidelines and legal challenges make the deal unlikely. But a new report by the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation downplays those obstacles.

“It looks like it’s legally do-able,” said foundation president Robert W. Poole Jr. “This may be a new breakthrough in terms of letting Orange County solve a big chunk of its financial problems.”

Since the county declared bankruptcy in December after losing $1.7 billion on a risky investment strategy, selling John Wayne Airport has been touted as a way to help raise needed cash. One federal law requires that all airport revenue, including sale proceeds, can only be spent on airport operations.

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Poole’s proposal would let a private enterprise purchase development rights at El Toro, and then agree to take over operations at John Wayne Airport--with no money swapping hands for that asset.

Poole said, however, some challenges will still face the county.

The federal government would need to speed up the process to turn over El Toro development authority to the county, and convince federal aviation and transportation officials not to impose any further development restrictions on the site.

The concept is similar to a proposal by the Orange County Transportation Authority to purchase El Toro development rights and take over operations at John Wayne.

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But the Air Transport Assn., which represents all U. S. commercial airlines, has vowed to fight any such move, calling it a “smoke and mirrors” ploy, said association spokesman John Ek.


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