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War Still Waged Over Base Airport : Land use: Volunteers with Taxpayers for Responsible Planning want county voters to have another say on how the El Toro air station will be developed.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If there’s any question about where the Taxpayers for Responsible Planning stand on the El Toro airport issue, just look at the logo they’ve plastered on bumper stickers, buttons, even baseball caps.

It’s a plane surrounded by a red circle with a slash through the middle.

Since it was formed in April, 1994, the organization has fought plans to put a civilian airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station when the military departs in 1999. It suffered a bruising defeat in November, 1994, when voters narrowly passed an initiative, Measure A, that backed construction of an airport.

But a year later, the group is flying high after gathering 106,000 signatures to force the issue back on to the ballot in March, 1996. Using mostly volunteers, Taxpayers for Responsible Planning now finds itself a key player in one of the most significant land use decisions facing Orange County.

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“They’re a force to be reckoned with; they can’t be ignored,” said Irvine Mayor Michael Ward, a group supporter who is also resisting airport plans.

These days, members of the county Board of Supervisors return their calls and accept their visits. The group’s influence even stretches to Washington.

There, organization representatives have persuaded Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) and others to lobby the Pentagon to withhold a $1-million federal grant to study reuse options at El Toro until voters next year decide Measure S, which would repeal airport plans and study future uses.

The organization says it started with a membership of 4,500 that has since grown to 6,000 and includes many South County residents who fear the airport will bring noise, pollution and traffic. Supporters, meanwhile, say the airport means jobs and economic security.

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Even Dave Ellis, spokesman for Measure A supporters, admits that the group commands attention for forcing airport backers to once again launch a campaign to convince voters that an airport is needed.

“It’s true,” he said. “We have to do this all over again.”

But while Taxpayers for Responsible Planning is proving it can be an effective political instrument, some critics accuse members of being sore losers who are trying to manipulate the public and undermine the 1994 election that went against them.

“There’s been a good deal of misrepresentation about the county’s planning process, and they continue to disseminate those misrepresentations,” said Courtney Wiercioch, a spokeswoman for the county’s role in the El Toro reuse plan. “I don’t think that’s fair to the citizens.”

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The county’s planning process will consider alternative uses and is not committed to a commercial airport, she said. But the anti-airport group and other critics insist that the county’s review process favors an airport.

“The people have already spoken: They want an airport,” Ellis said. “This is dragging us through the same process once more.”

James Danziger, professor of urban politics at UC Irvine, said that taxpayers are the biggest losers, caught in the middle of a complex debate that the average citizen has trouble understanding.

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“This illustrates the fundamental problem with ‘ballot box planning,’ ” Danziger said. “You have complex decisions, but the voters are at the mercy of groups manipulating the information.”

Taxpayers for Responsible Planning co-chairman Bill Kogerman concedes there is conflicting information on what an airport will mean to Orange County. That’s why he says Measure S is needed to ensure a fair and impartial planning process.

“Maybe an airport is the best thing. Who knows? I don’t profess to know,” said Kogerman, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who was once stationed at El Toro. “But the other side’s attitude is ‘Trust us. This is a good thing.’ I say, why should we?”

Kogerman and fellow co-chairman Bert Hack said their success in getting Measure S onto the ballot has relied on nearly 1,800 volunteers, many of whom are retired residents and senior citizens, who gathered more than 106,000 signatures, well more than the 76,000 signatures needed to qualify the measure.

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“The volunteers were the backbone. We couldn’t have done it without them,” said Hack, 66, a retired litigator. “They’ve put their hearts and souls into this.”

Denny Harris, 58, of Laguna Niguel said he’s typical of airport opponents. A retired U.S. Army officer, Harris said he collected 1,500 signatures himself because he believed no one was representing residents who will be affected by an airport at El Toro.

“The vested interests are behind the airport,” Harris said. “Certainly, we’re a vested interest too, but we’re going to have to live with planes flying over our heads.”

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Like Harris, Linda Moore, 44, of Lake Forest said she dedicated nearly 40 hours a week collecting signatures outside supermarkets, the local Home Depot and other spots because she isn’t convinced the county needs another airport besides John Wayne Airport.

But Ellis balks at what he calls efforts by Taxpayers for Responsible Planning members to portray themselves as “mothers in tennis shoes, trying to get out the vote.” Airport opponents have raised more than $165,000 to qualify Measure S, he pointed out.

Kogerman countered that those funds don’t come close to matching the more than $650,000 that wealthy developer George Argyros contributed to the pro-airport campaign. Most of the donations to Taxpayers for Responsible Planning have come from contributions in the $25 to $500 range, Kogerman said.

The fight over Measure S is just starting, however.

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Airport supporters have filed a legal challenge, questioning the validity of the signature collection process. A court hearing is set for Dec. 14.

“The whole point is there’s a lot of unanswered questions, and we want those questions answered,” Kogerman said. “That’s what we’re trying to do for the citizens.”


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