Siding with opponents of a commercial airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, a Superior Court judge on Friday accused planners of minimizing an airport's impact on noise, traffic and pollution in surrounding South County communities.
Judge Judith McConnell issued a tentative ruling labeling the county's environmental impact report both unrealistic and inappropriate and suggesting that the weighty document would have to be overhauled before airport planning can proceed.
"It is unrealistic," McConnell wrote, "and has the effect of artificially minimizing the proposed project's environmental impacts."
McConnell's ruling won't become final until after both sides have a chance to dispute her findings at a hearing Tuesday. But in nine of the 17 points before her, the judge preliminarily affirmed the claims of airport opponents, who say the county has never properly addressed a bevy of issues concerning an airport's impact on its neighbors.
The judge also took to task the Orange County Board of Supervisors, questioning the forecasting their planners used to portray an airport as the best reuse for the 4,700-acre military base. Many of the report's key findings were "not supported by the evidence," the judge wrote.
The decision falls far short of killing the county's airport plans, and county officials and airport supporters downplayed its significance, calling it little more than a minor setback.
Michael Gatzke, the county's lead attorney on El Toro litigation, defended the report and said he would urge the county to appeal if the judge's final ruling echoes her preliminary decision.
But airport opponents reacted jubilantly to the ruling, which marked a rare victory in South County's battle to block an airport at El Toro.
They hope this is the first step toward forcing county leaders to adopt a new environmental impact report, which they believe could dissuade the county from pursuing an airport.
"This is a major, major kick in the teeth to the county's defense of a flawed" environmental impact report, said Bill Kogerman, executive director of Taxpayers for Responsible Planning, the South County anti-airport group that sued over the report.
Jim Moose, the Sacramento-based attorney for Taxpayers for Responsible Planning, cautioned against celebrating prematurely because of the tentative nature of Friday's ruling.
"I don't want to take for granted that it's in the bag," Moose said, "but, essentially, she agreed with us on all the key points--that the net effect of their [environmental impact report] was to significantly understate the severity of impacts, particularly noise, traffic and air quality."
County officials did not contradict that assessment Friday but said the judge's ruling would do little more than map out how to fix the report so it will withstand future scrutiny.
"They can feel whatever they want to feel," Gatzke said of the airport opponents, "but even if we don't turn her around on any of these issues [during oral arguments], I don't know that any of this is going to have a terribly significant impact."
Airport supporter Clarence Turner, spokesman for the Airport Working Group and a former mayor of Newport Beach, called the ruling a "short-term victory, at best, for the opponents."
He said the judge's recommendations would ultimately help airport planning by giving the county "a blueprint to follow to satisfy the court. Their work is essentially done, because the court has said, 'Do this, this and this,' " and the report will be adequate.
Turner and others said that even if McConnell decides to quash the report, "all you do is make the developer do it over."
McConnell is known for being an environmentally friendly jurist, and lately she's been an arbiter of major Orange County issues. It was McConnell who, in May, ruled in favor of environmentalists opposed to development of the Bolsa Chica coastal wetlands.
McConnell heard the El Toro case because of concerns that Orange County jurists would have conflicts of interest in regard to the thicket of issues surrounding the base, which is slated to close in mid-1999.
County voters have twice endorsed plans to develop an airport when the base closes, but its future remains one of the county's most controversial planning issues.
Supervisor Thomas W. Wilson, who cast the lone vote in opposition to an El Toro airport when the issue came before the board in December, said he felt a sense of vindication with the judge's ruling.
"It is nice to see the suspicions confirmed," Wilson said. "I felt at the time that the document was inadequate and flawed, and to have the judge say the same thing is very positive."
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, another El Toro foe who joined the board after its December vote, said the ruling raises serious questions about the credibility of the county's El Toro planners.
"People are mistrustful of the planning process," Spitzer said. "There is no doubt that the judge's ruling corroborates this skeptical point of view."
Spitzer described the judge's ruling as "scathing," adding: "It clearly scolds the county for trying to pull the wool over the eyes [of people] on significant undisclosed impacts of a commercial airport."
McConnell's key findings appeared to blame the county primarily for underestimating "future conditions" at a commercial airport, saying the conclusion that such a facility would not increase regional airplane traffic "is not supported by the evidence."
The judge also ruled that the report "improperly assumed John Wayne Airport would be expanded and then closed." She added that the county's assessment of the future of John Wayne Airport "does not appear to be reasonable."
The judge also sided with the county on several points, including a dispute over environmental contamination at the base.
Airport opponents have long contended that cleaning up El Toro will be a gargantuan task costing billions of dollars.
But McConnell said airport opponents failed to present evidence supporting that claim. The plaintiffs also did not prove, in her words, that the county "failed to include an economic analysis" of an aviation reuse of the base.
Regardless of how the issues are resolved, airport opponents saw Friday's ruling as a turning point.
"I think we prevailed in such a manner that, essentially, the entire [environmental impact report] goes back to square one," Kogerman said. "There's no question that we won on the major points. She didn't give us 100%, but she did give us the meaningful points."
Irvine Mayor Christina L. Shea said the court ruling, combined with the Board of Supervisors' decision earlier this week to let airport opponents develop a non-aviation plan for the base, show that South County is on a roll.
"I think the tide is definitely turning," she said. "After four years of fighting, it's great to have this in our favor."
Also contributing to this report were Times staff writers Marcida Dodson and Shelby Grad.