A ballot measure that would repeal plans for a commercial airport at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station continues to bitterly divide North and South County voters and appears headed for a photo finish, according to a new Times Orange County Poll.
With little more than two weeks to go before the March 26 election, the poll shows 41% of voters intend to support Measure S, while 40% oppose it. Despite almost four years of debate about El Toro's future, almost a fifth of the voters remain undecided and hold the power to determine the outcome of the election.
The tight race is a repeat of the November 1994 election, when voters narrowly endorsed a proposal to develop a commercial airport at El Toro. The near dead heat in the current poll, coupled with the potential for low voter turnout, means that, once again, one of the most controversial planning decisions facing Orange County will probably be decided by a small number of voters.
"There's little room for compromise on an issue like this," said Mark Baldassare, a UC Irvine professor of urban planning who conducted the poll for The Times. "Every time Orange County voters have an opportunity to speak their voice on an El Toro civilian airport, it's a very close election. The county was divided and is divided."
The poll results also reveal that voters are confused about a complex development issue that has been the subject of seemingly contradicting studies and reports, Baldassare said. That confusion may be responsible for a level of voter apathy even on behalf of those who believe they have a stake in the base's reincarnation.
The poll, conducted March 1-4 of 600 registered Orange County voters, shows that 76% of South County voters believe an airport will create excessive noise in their communities near the base, and 66% agree that it will have a negative impact on property values. Yet only 50% of South County voters said they would support Measure S, and 15% of South County voters remain undecided. The margin of error for the total sample is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
"There are a number of South County people who are opposed to the measure. That is surprising," said Baldassare, noting that North County voters outnumber South County voters by more than 2 to 1. "If you're the Yes [on S] side, those numbers have got to be disappointing. They need a huge turnout and overwhelming support in the south if they are going to have a chance of winning."
Those results also lead Baldassare to suspect that opposition to a commercial airport at El Toro may be more concentrated in South County areas closest to the base than previously believed.
Harold West, a retired publishing manager, is among the 35% of South County voters who said they oppose Measure S. West, who owns a home in San Juan Capistrano, attributes opposition to an airport to the NIMBY mentality of folks whose refrain is "Not in my backyard!"
"We need a commercial airport for the future," said West, who believes the vote is about preparing the county for the 21st century. "They're Mickey Mouse. They're just not thinking about the future," he said of airport opponents.
But those who live closer to the base resent being forced to make neighbors with an airport.
"An airport is stupid. There's no need for it," said Mike Yeager, 33, who can hear El Toro's military planes overhead whether he's in his Mission Viejo apartment or at his job in a waste water treatment plant. "I'm tired of it. Why don't they build something there that the public can enjoy?"
In North County, 78% of voters believe a commercial airport would create jobs and improve the Orange County economy; 54% believe an airport is the most "fiscally sound" use of the base. Yet the polls also show that Measure S still generates 38% support among North County voters, along with 41% who oppose it.
"My sense is there is a lot of apathy and ambivalence about the airport, even among North County people who think it is good for the economy," Baldassare said. "Even for strong airport supporters, the issue that keeps coming up is 'Do we need this? Do we need another airport?' "
The fate of the El Toro is the most significant planning decision facing Orange County, in part because its impact extends far beyond the 4,700-acre base, into the 18,000-acre "no homes" buffer zone that would surround an airport.
If a commercial airport is not developed at El Toro, the federally required buffer could be open for development. The military expects to abandon the base by 1999.
Measure A amended the county's General Plan to allow for the development of a commercial airport at the base. The Orange County Board of Supervisors is currently spending $2.7 million to develop a base reuse plan that includes both aviation and non-aviation options. The plan must be submitted to the federal government by year's end.
Measure S would repeal Measure A and require the county to disband its citizens advisory committee. Measure S also establishes obstacles to any future plans for a commercial airport, such as requiring yet another countywide election before an airport could be developed at the base.
Baldassare said the complex issues involved in the case are made more confusing because a yes vote on Measure S actually means a no vote for a proposed airport.
The debate has left both sides on the airport issue accusing each other of bowing to special interest demands, while voters like Rebecca Macias look on, trying to unravel it all.
Macias said she finds herself baffled by the competing Measure S mailers left in her Laguna Hills mailbox. Macias is opposed to a commercial airport at El Toro, but is not completely sold on the pro-Measure S campaign.
"Both sides, in my opinion, have an agenda of their own, and they're not being honest," said Macias, 42, who works as a secretary for the Orange County Probation Department and responded to The Times poll. "I'd like to take a stand, but I'm confused. I just wish the base wasn't closing. I'd feel better with the military here."
The poll results also show the Yes on Measure S campaign cannot claim an outright majority of any demographic group besides South County residents. Democrats lean toward supporting Measure S by a slim margin of 45% to 40%, with 15% undecided. Republicans polled favored Measure S by an even narrower margin of 41% to 39%, with 20% undecided.
The outcome of the election is likely to depend on turnout for the Republican primary and whether campaigns have enough time and money to sway undecided voters.
According to recent campaign statements, the pro-Measure S campaigns have received at least $759,000. The bulk of those funds--more than $500,000--came from Leisure World Laguna Hills, where many residents of the retirement community fear an airport will mean congested freeways and commercial aircraft flying overhead.
By comparison, the pro-airport campaign that spent nearly $1 million on Measure A 18 months ago, has reported raising just over $66,000 so far. During a major fund-raising dinner this past week, the pro-airport side raised at least $160,000 more, officials said.
Many residents continue to see the reincarnation of El Toro as a "pocketbook" issue. Deciding whether to support or oppose a commercial airport often depends on whether it would affect home values or jobs.
Joni Ruelaz, for example, doesn't buy the claim that a commercial airport would be fully funded by revenue bonds that would not cost county taxpayers a dime. Ruelaz, 40, a housing supervisor for the city of Anaheim, is convinced that somewhere down the line the county taxpayers will be picking up a tab.
"There's a better way to develop that property than an airport. We need something that will make money, not cost taxpayers," said the Anaheim Hills resident, who intends to support Measure S. "I just don't think we need another airport."
Julia Johnson, 75, lives in Garden Grove, far from the base, but said she supports Measure S because an airport will cause too much noise and traffic for South County residents.
But Johnson's suggestion for the base might upset people even more than planes flying overhead.
"I think that would be a good place for a prison," said Johnson, who is concerned about criminals being released early because of prison overcrowding. "We already have an airport. We don't have a prison."
Donovan Packard of Anaheim said he supports Measure S because an airport at El Toro could cost him his job.
Packard, 26, is a fleet service clerk for American Airlines at John Wayne Airport, and fears that a second airport at El Toro could cause the airline to shake up its operation.
"I would be in favor of it, if I knew my job with American Airlines wouldn't be affected," Packard said. But he doesn't believe the county needs a second airport, contending it should lift caps on passenger flights and cargo planes at John Wayne Airport to meet demands.
"The county feels like it wants to do something with the base, and this would be an easy thing for them to do," he said.
* CHARTER PROPOSAL
Plan to reshape O.C. government has slim plurality. A26
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Measure S Divide
Measure S, the ballot issue that would repeal plans to create a commercial airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, is a toss-up. County voters are evenly divided, with one in five still undecided. While a large majority believes an airport would improve the local economy, most voters also think it would create excessive noise in the surrounding cities:
* Measure S would repeal Measure A, which passed in 1994 and designated the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station to become a civilian airport when the base closes. Measure S states that the best use for the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station is not a civilian airport. If the election were held today, would you vote yes or no on Measure S?
Don't know: 19
* Do you agree or disagree with the following statements: A commercial airport at El Toro will create jobs and improve the Orange County economy.
1994 1996 Agree 68% 74% Disagree 25 19 Don't know 7 7
* A commercial airport at El Toro is the most fiscally sound use of the Marine air base, that is, it will cost Orange County taxpayers less to develop and will generate more tax revenues that any other possible future uses.
1994 1996 Agree 44% 51% Disagree 37 33 Don't know 19 16
* A commercial airport at El Toro will create excessive noise for residents living in the surrounding communities.
1994 1996 Agree 70% 68% Disagree 25 26 Don't know 5 6
* A commercial airport at El Toro will reduce property values in the surrounding areas.
Don't know: 9
Note: 1994 comparison for property value question not available
Regional differences are the most telling on Measure S, with South County residents less likely to agree that an airport on the El Toro site would be a fiscal winner. They are more likely to view one as an environmental and property-value degradation:
Don't Agree Disagree know Create more jobs North county 78% 15% 7% South county 61 32 7 Most fiscally sound use North county 54 29 17 South county 41 49 10 Create excessive noise North county 66 29 5 South county 76 17 7 Reduce property values North county 53 37 10 South county 66 26 8
Note: North County includes Newport Beach
Source: Times Orange County Poll
How the Poll Was Conducted
The Times Orange County Poll was conducted by Mark Baldassare and Associates. The telephone survey of 600 Orange County registered voters was conducted March 1-4 on weekday nights and weekend days. The margin of error for the total sample is plus or minus 4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The margin of error for likely voters in the March primary is plus or minus 6 percentage points.