Opponents of a commercial airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station said Wednesday they will file a lawsuit to block development of the facility, and officials from cities bordering the base hunkered down for what both sides said could be a lengthy and costly court battle.
"Just because they approved a plan doesn't mean an airport is inevitable," said Irvine Councilman Barry Hammond. "We anticipated this. Tuesday night, our council authorized the filing of a lawsuit within 30 days as prescribed by law to stop it. I suggest that you stay tuned."
The Board of Supervisors approved a controversial plan Wednesday to develop a passenger and commercial airport at El Toro when the Marines leave by 1999, and a key supporter of the proposal predicted that cargo flights could begin on the heels of the military's departure.
Reaction from airport supporters and opponents was predictable, with supporters crowing that a new facility located about eight miles from John Wayne Airport would give the county an economic boost in the 21st century, while opponents contended it will erode the quality of life in South County.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
"This was the most important decision that the county can make in the next 100 years. It's a wonderful economic opportunity for Orange County," said Newport Beach developer George Argyros, a leading airport supporter. "The cargo operation could be ready as soon as the Marines start to vacate the base. We can even get some cargo flights out of here before the base closes."
Notwithstanding Argyros' optimism, the Marines have repeatedly rejected calls for joint use of the base, saying that allowing commercial aircraft to use the base would interfere with the military's mission.
Argyros, who spearheaded two successful ballot measures to convert the base into a commercial airport, extended an olive branch to Irvine and other South County cities who have vowed to stop the facility from being built.
"The decision is done. An airport can be designed that will be commercially viable and a good neighbor to the community. The planning can be done very carefully."
However, opponents were in no mood for compromise.
"I foresee [the base] staying fallow for a long time. Nobody will realize the benefits of a conversion to an airport or anything, because we're just entering into a protracted legal battle," said Melody Carruth, a Laguna Hills councilwoman until her term ended Tuesday.
"The Board of Supervisors bought the economic argument from the beginning without giving the option preferred by South County cities proper consideration," she said.
Carruth and other South County officials favored an alternative proposal without an airport that would allow the 4,700-acre base to be developed for mixed use, which could include recreational facilities, a university campus, residential housing and light industry. They argued that their proposal better protected the quality of life in the South County area.
Garden Grove Councilman Mark Leyes, who lobbied aggressively for an airport since the plan was proposed three years ago, said that opponents' environmental concerns over traffic, pollution and noise "are legitimate." But Leyes said that "many of the worries expressed by South County residents are irrational."
"The legitimate concerns can be dealt with. I hope [opponents] see that, because none of us wants to harm the quality of life for them or anybody else in the county," Leyes said. "We can work on airport design that will have some trade-offs. Those might be hours of operation and other restrictions."
Lake Forest Councilman Richard T. Dixon said an airport at El Toro, if it is ever built, would be a white elephant because the supervisors voted to keep John Wayne Airport open for commercial flights. He predicted that there will never be an adequate demand for a new airport while John Wayne is in operation.
"The supervisors bowed to an extremely powerful group of business types in the county who favor the new airport," Dixon charged. "Argyros and the others got what they wanted."
Argyros denied that he has an economic interest in a new airport, Despite the pivotal role he played in getting the plan approved, he insisted that "I'm just another citizen," and "I will have no role in the planning or building of an airport."