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Spending on El Toro Plans Is Premature : County Should Wait for Results of Anti-Airport Vote

This has not been the best of times for the eager partisans who hoped to wrap up the future of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station after last year’s ballot initiative that narrowly designated the base for an airport.

The Board of Supervisors agreed Nov. 14 to put an initiative on the March, 1996, ballot that is aimed at blocking the development of the airport. The question of whether anti-airport forces had requisite signatures to put the future of the base back before voters is before the courts. For now, county officials have said election law does not require the county to verify that signature collectors are registered to vote. Assuming the ballot measure does go forward, what matters right now for taxpayers is spending on planning expenditures for the base while things are up in the air.

Reps. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) and Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), as well as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), have written letters to the Department of Defense urging that the county not be allowed to spend a $1-million grant for planning until voters decide on the initiative. The interim director of John Wayne Airport says planning nevertheless will move forward under a federal grant already received.

The letters from the congressional representatives supplemented the lobbying effort of an anti-airport group that has met with the Transportation Department to argue their case.

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The citizens group clearly has a specific agenda in trying to block an airport at El Toro. But regardless of what anyone thinks should happen at the base--whether there is an airport or no airport, or whether there is an airport and something else--the congressional correspondents have a valid point. They are arguing for holding back an expenditure of the taxpayers’ money for a specific outcome until a changing situation is made much more clear.

The underlying premise of the federal government’s approach to the future of El Toro from the beginning has been that the planning should reflect a community consensus. That consensus has been noticeably absent. It has been apparent for some time that there was a substantial split within Orange County and even in the environs of the base over what should happen when the Marines leave.

Most recently, the wrangling has centered on the participants on the El Toro Airport Citizens Advisory Commission. Supervisors ended up excluding two South County mayors last month. Irvine Mayor Michael Ward and Lake Forest Mayor Richard T. Dixon had refused requests to join the commission, arguing they didn’t want to participate in planning for something that was already decided.

The larger point is that full-scale planning for an airport is a potentially futile and costly undertaking given the many questions that still remain. Some issues still to be resolved are how such an airport would be financed by a county trying to emerge from bankruptcy, what would be the fate of the existing John Wayne facility and whether there are better and as yet unexplored uses for the land.

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The front-loading of planning that resulted from the designation of the site for an airport effectively cut off other options. The congressional representatives, mindful of the split, are making a common-sense argument that federal taxpayer money should not be spent while the voters themselves take a second look.

Taking more time to decide on El Toro is more important than rushing ahead with planning for a future clouded by litigation and controversy. Until voters give a clearer indication, save some money.


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