The Board of Supervisors cast a historic vote when it included an airport component into a reuse plan for the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. But, history aside, it was but a first step in a long process that ultimately will decide the fate of the base.
There was a provision in that vote for a worst-case scenario of 33 million passengers per year to meet the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act. That aside, most knowledgeable persons believe that an airport of that magnitude may not be required to provide the air transportation needs of Orange County. The board very wisely directed staff to analyze other capacities which may be more compatible with the county’s needs and certainly more compatible with surrounding neighborhoods. Included in the directive was a proviso for a two-airport component to serve Orange County. That includes the continuation of John Wayne Airport and El Toro.
While some might argue that commercial activity at John Wayne should cease, it simply is not in the cards. It was designed as a commercial airport, it is operating as such and millions of dollars from the private sector have been invested in and around the complex based on that concept. Not to mention the $241-million bond issue remaining to be paid off.
But having said that, it does not mean that John Wayne Airport should meet the continuing needs of the county. Rather, it should be limited to the 8.4 million passengers per year with El Toro handling the balance of the county’s needs. That can be done through proper planning.
That planning includes a Joint Power Authority, which would be made up of the county and its various cities. To be sure, other criteria must be incorporated into that JPA, but the authority to do so is provided under California law. Properly constituted, it should ensure that everyone is equally represented.
Measure A suggested that a reuse plan for El Toro be developed with a revenue-sharing component. That means excess monies developed from the base would be shared with Orange County governments. It also suggested that those jurisdictions immediately abutting the airport be given special consideration for some of the infrastructure costs they may need to supply in order to make a reuse of the base more functional.
Of the 4,700 acres involved, 1,000 acres are to be set aside for environmental purposes and up to 2,000 acres are to be used for airport purposes. But of those 2,000 acres, some could be used for the development of airport-compatible uses such as freight terminals, hotels, restaurants and the like.
In a broad sense, that leaves 1,700 acres left for additional development. Those acres should be considered as a “free-trade zone.” Such use would be compatible with the airport, and would be a new industry for Orange County. It should not compete with other landowners in the area and should be a major source of revenue and jobs. If properly subdivided and developed, they could be leased to developers and provide another major source of income from the base.
Even though El Toro is probably a cash cow standing forlornly in the pasture waiting to be milked, the board must realize that profits are not the only consideration. Compatibility with cities surrounding the base is a high priority. To achieve this compatibility, some restraints must be considered. Although recent federal legislation makes such restraints more difficult, there may be other methods to control the size of the airport including land use restrictions, utility sizing and the like. It is also not beyond the realm of possibility to amend federal laws to accommodate a more restricted use of El Toro.
After all, a sound argument can be made that a politically acceptable reuse plan of this space would be in the best interests of the Department of the Navy, the county, and certainly the cities and citizens.
It will take innovative and persistent leadership on the part of our elected leaders to pull this off, but politics is the art of compromise. This will be an opportunity for elected leaders to bring about a reasonable reuse of El Toro for the benefit of all of the county’s citizens.