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Packaging El Toro

Last week, a divided Board of Supervisors decided to explore flying commercial cargo jets out of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station before the Marines leave in 1999. This idea seems to have blown in on El Nino’s winds and, like so many other aspects of the county’s airport designs, been granted instant priority status. This is so even though it had an inflammatory effect given the controversy over future uses for the base.

The reason for this goes to the heart of the continuing crisis in planning. The base’s next chapter still is being mapped by the seat of the pants, with the big commercial airport idea driving everything, just as it has since the base closure was announced in 1993.

Mindful that public opinion now favors a broader exploration of alternatives, the advocates of a big airport appear interested in sealing the future quickly by installing the cargo component of the favored international passenger-cargo option approved last year. This is so despite concerns raised by mingling commercial and military uses, and a 1990 federal law prohibiting civilian aircraft from using the runways until the Marines move out. Also, one of the major handlers of cargo, United Parcel Service, says it would not increase the number of flights out of Orange County even if it could use El Toro. It has a hub at Ontario and asserts that John Wayne Airport is taking care of its local needs.

Arguments for a big airport seem ever adaptable, and to any economic cycle. Previously, the county said it had to jump-start the economy. Now that business is booming, we hear that demand must be serviced ASAP.

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1997 has been an unsettling year for these proponents and an important one for the county at large. A sense of rationality has begun to work its way into the base reuse process. After four years of ballot-box planning, many of our prior concerns with the process have shown their merit.

The exploration of non-aviation uses finally gained priority status once it became clear that division over the base’s future threatened the county’s viability as a political entity. The concerns about the environmental impact report that we cited a year ago in a major statement on El Toro were echoed this year in a judge’s strong criticism. Further, problems with spending plans and communication were followed by the reining in of county staff.

In the face of these significant changes, some of the progress made during 1997 is being derailed at year’s end. Little has changed to alter the public perception that what some advocates really want is a full-scale airport, over the objections of surrounding communities. This is ironic because one of the county’s major nonstarters of the year was an expensive public relations plan.

In presiding over his last meeting as board chairman last week, Supervisor William G. Steiner lamented the continued divisiveness over the international airport idea. “There seems to be no middle ground,” he said. But at the same meeting, his board relinquished the opportunity to signal its own moderation on future aviation use by advancing a premature cargo plan sure to irritate a substantial constituency.

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Here’s what the board now must do to reaffirm and cement the hard-won gains of 1997: First, jettison the early cargo flights idea and declare that nothing will be done to disturb the trend to reasonableness that began to take hold when the study of non-aviation uses took on a new priority. State that until the Marines leave, there will be no commercial flights out of El Toro, but that such flights are an option for later. Second, affirm the goal of finding a comprehensive reuse plan acceptable to surrounding communities. Be clear that if there is any airport in the future to meet the county’s needs, it will be of suitable size and carefully regulated.


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