Dragging Orange County's most controversial issue back into the courtroom, eight South County cities on Thursday filed a lawsuit seeking to block plans to turn the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station into a major commercial-cargo airport.
The lawsuit in Superior Court contends that an environmental impact report fails to adequately reveal the project's noise, traffic and pollution effects. It also accuses the County Board of Supervisors of abusing its discretion when it voted 4 to 1 last month to recycle the retiring military base into a civilian airport serving 25 million passengers a year.
"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 said.
Further, the suit maintains that the environmental report:
* Contradicts its own findings by stating an airport would have a "nonexistent or minimal" effect on regional airport pollution.
* Violates state environmental guidelines by comparing the impact of a civilian airport to the current military use. The suit argues that the comparison is false because the federal government will abandon the base by mid-1999.
* Fails to analyze the cleanup of ground water and soil contamination at El Toro or discuss ways to lessen an airport's negative effects on area neighborhoods.
The suit was filed by cities that border the base or are located under an airport's projected flight path. They are Irvine, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Beach, Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano.
The cities are asking a judge to force the county to revamp its environmental impact report. Even if successful, however, the suit by itself cannot dash airport plans, attorneys concede. But project opponents believe they may have a fighting chance to kill the airport if they can stall the planning process.
Irvine Councilman Mike Ward said he believes a judge will easily recognize the reports' 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 halt the airport is expected to be filed today by Taxpayers for Responsible Planning, a citizens' group.
County officials late Thursday had just begun reviewing the cities' suit, but County Counsel Laurence M. Watson said the county's report will stand up to legal challenge.
"We're not surprised we received the lawsuit, and we're not surprised at the contents of the lawsuit," Watson said. "We're confident the [environmental impact report] is a good one."
David Ellis, a consultant for airport backers, scoffed at the suit: "More chasing their tails."
The dispute over the future of the 4,700-acre military base has sharply divided Orange County, with some opponents in South County talking about waging a property taxpayers' revolt, boycotting businesses that support an airport at El Toro, 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 John Wayne Airport cannot handle growing passenger demand.
But opponents say they are being sacrificed to special interests and maintain that an airport at El Toro would 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 countywide voters in November 1994 that called for developing El Toro into an airport when the military retires the base. A judge upheld the initiative, and that ruling is now being appealed.
Attorney Richard C. Jacobs, who is representing South County cities, said he is confident that airport foes will succeed this time.
The environmental impact report spans more than 40 volumes but was ultimately a rushed effort to get the airport plan in front of the supervisors before two new members joined the panel this month, Jacobs said.
"They are going to lose," he predicted.
The lawsuit by the South County cities could be resolved within a year, Jacobs said. The case is not expected to require any witnesses or testimony, relying instead on the environmental impact report documents and state environmental law.
But some environmental law experts caution that "victory" in such cases may not mean quashing the project. 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.
"The goal is not to necessarily kill the project, but to get the county to honestly and clearly review the impacts," UCLA environmental law professor Jody Freeman said. "The idea being that when it's all in the public record, they can mobilize opposition to block it."
Supervisors last month sought to strike a compromise between the warring factions by scaling back the project.
Originally, the project envisioned operating around the clock and serving as many as 38.3 million annual passengers, challenging Los Angeles International Airport for cargo service and international flights.
Supervisors, saying such a project was too large, sought to limit an El Toro airport to a maximum of 25 million annual passengers and promised to seek a ban on night flights.
That didn't mollify opponents, who said it is beyond the supervisors' power to force airlines to submit to a night curfew. They also fear that it will be just a matter of time before supervisors would expand airport operations.