Dragging Orange County's most controversial issue back into the courtroom, eight southern Orange County cities Thursday filed a lawsuit to halt plans to turn El Toro Marine Corps Air Station into a major commercial cargo airport.
The lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court claims that an environmental impact report downplayed the project's effect on noise, traffic and pollution and accuses the Orange County Board of Supervisors of having abused its discretion when it voted 4 to 1 last month to recycle the military base into a civilian airport.
"Rather than fully and fairly disclosing those impacts so they could be considered as part of the Board of Supervisors' decision, [the report] minimized, distorted and misstated them," the lawsuit alleges.
The suit was filed by cities that border the base or lie beneath an airport's projected flight path--Irvine, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Beach, Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano.
Irvine City Councilman Mike Ward said he believes that a judge will easily recognize the report's faults. "Here the county considers itself a regional planner, and you look at the [report] and it's a joke," he said.
Another lawsuit to block the airport is expected to be filed today by Taxpayers for Responsible Planning, a citizens group.
County officials Thursday declined to comment on the cities' action, saying they had not yet reviewed it. But officials in the past have defended the environmental document as supplying all the information required at this early point in the planning process.
"More chasing their tails," said David Ellis, a consultant for airport backers.
The dispute over the future of the military base has sharply divided Orange County, with many opponents in the southern part of the county talking about waging a property taxpayers' revolt, boycotting businesses that support an airport or seceding to form their own county.
Airport backers include prominent business leaders and residents, most of whom don't live near El Toro, who see an airport as a way to generate jobs, boost tourism and provide convenient cargo and passenger service. They say the county's existing John Wayne Airport cannot handle growing passenger demand.
But opponents say they are being sacrificed to special interests and maintain that an airport will have a devastating effect on their quality of life and home values. There must be a better way to reuse the base to benefit the local economy without harming neighbors, they say.
Airport opponents have failed before in fighting the airport proposal in court.
The first lawsuit sought to overturn Measure A, an initiative approved by a majority of county voters in November 1994 that called for developing El Toro into an airport when the military retires the base in mid-1999. A judge upheld the initiative, and that ruling is now being appealed.
Attorney Richard C. Jacobs, who is representing southern Orange County cities, said he is confident that airport foes will succeed this time.
But some environmental law experts caution that victory in such cases may not mean killing the project outright. If successful, the suit would force the county to revise its environmental impact report--potentially a daunting task but not a fatal setback, officials said.
"It would require the county to go back to the drawing boards, to completely start the planning process all over again," Jacobs said.