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Airport Plan a Tough Sell in S. County

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The battle to win over hearts and minds on plans to build an airport at the El Toro Marine base began in earnest Wednesday in South County--where opposition was loud and strong with some jeering and booing.

About 500 people crowded into the El Toro High School gymnasium to review for the first time the county’s airport proposal and the non-aviation plan created by airport foes in the five-year debate.

The majority of the audience made clear their intense opposition to the airport to county planners, who at one time were told to go home.

“I have suffered the disadvantages of living next to an airport, like noise pollution and air pollution,” said H.T. Bull, a speaker who said he lived near London’s Heathrow Airport and now lives in Laguna Niguel. “Have you ever lived in such an environment and experienced all these so-called good things that you have described in your plan?”

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The emotional 2 1/2-hour presentation allowed county officials to tout their primary airport plan, which would place as many as 24 million annual passengers at El Toro and includes international and cargo flights.

County officials said they would use input from the several “town hall” meetings to fine-tune the airport proposal, which was selected from four plans by a majority of the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

But it was a tough sell Wednesday night.

The crowd, made up of South County school district officials, elected officials, parents with children, and senior citizens, did not seem too impressed with any of the county’s four proposals.

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Members of the audience were angered even more when county planners could not answer questions about noise levels, safety, air pollution and potential revenue that the airport may generate.

“I think they are giving us a song-and-dance,” said Jay Asthchenberg, a Lake Forest resident who attended the meeting with his wife and two children, after the county finished its presentation.

“These are all concerns that they should have answers for, because they voted on these plans,” he said.

Several times, emotions got so high that Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who represents the area, had to plead with audience members to reserve their comments.

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Some audience members told county planners to “go home” when they said the plan would improve their quality of life.

By contrast, when the planners for the leading anti-airport group unveiled their Millennium Plan, which boasts a central park, residential housing, office space, a museum and a university, the audience erupted in cheers.

“The thing is we must convert the rest of the county,” said Dianne Brooks, a resident of Lake Forest. “We are here to help.”

But at least one speaker was skeptical about the non-aviation plan.

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“My main concern is with the county and that they continue to lie to us. I want to make sure that you are not lying to us about the Millennium Plan,” said Scott Couchman of Irvine. “The issue here has to do with practicality. How are you going to fill these facilities that you describe in your plan?”

Backers of the Millennium Plan said market research supports their proposal.

But the showdown Wednesday night was only the first stop of many.

Next month the road show will be taken to Yorba Linda and Tustin, two cities that have, for the most part, been pro-airport.

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Wednesday’s presentation was more than an opportunity to see both plans; it also became a testing ground for Spitzer, whose district stretches from Yorba Linda to Mission Viejo and has been divided on the airport issue.

So far, Spitzer has stated his opposition to a large international airport at the 4,700-acre base.

But after being criticized publicly at Tuesday’s board meeting by many constituents who support an airport plan, Spitzer said in an interview that his position on the airport will be determined by what he hears in the next few months.

At Tuesday’s meeting, many speakers and some members of the board called on South County representatives to sit down at the table to negotiate a reasonable airport solution.

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“There is a possibility of a full-blown international airport getting built at El Toro, and if nobody represents South County’s interests at the table, then South County is going to get mowed over,” Spitzer said before the meeting. “Do my constituents want me to say ‘No airport--over my dead body’ or ‘Negotiate the least impacting airport’ or ‘An airport at all costs’? I have a very open mind to listen to both plans and make the best decision I can.”

Supervisor Tom Wilson, whose also-divided district stretches from Newport Beach, which is staunchly pro-airport, to Dana Point and San Clemente, has stated that he is opposed to an airport at the base.

However, earlier this month Wilson raised the ire of many of his constituents when he voted in line with the three pro-airport supervisors on a contract for the county’s lead attorney on El Toro litigation. One week later, he cast a new vote against the attorney.

Foes of the airport say that losing Spitzer as an ally would be a significant blow since they already can count on only two members of the Board of Supervisors. Supervisors Charles V. Smith, Jim Silva and William G. Steiner are behind an airport plan.

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“Clearly, we need to have three supervisors on the board that are in favor of not having an airport at El Toro,” said Richard Dixon, head of the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, a coalition of South County cities against the airport. “But I think as things go along and the county details its plans, Supervisor Spitzer will find there is not as large a support for an airport as he might think.”


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