Anxious to prevent the spread of anti-airport sentiment to another group of communities under El Toro's secondary takeoff path, county officials are trying to figure out if departing planes can be directed away from Tustin, Cowan Heights and East Orange.
The county now wants to have planes take off directly over sparsely populated areas around Irvine Lake, instead of making a westerly turn over those central county cities.
For two months, county officials have been quietly meeting with key central county leaders, including former Supervisor Don Saltarelli, in an effort to forge a solution to the potential noise problem that an international airport at El Toro could create for some central communities.
Anti-airport activism has been confined largely to South County cities such as Irvine, Lake Forest and Mission Viejo--all of which are under the easterly takeoff route that 70% of the flights from a commercial El Toro airport would take.
The remaining 30% of the flights, including those by the largest--and coincidentally the noisiest--jet aircraft in operation, would both take off and land on El Toro's north runway.
Until now, Tustin and surrounding communities have either remained neutral on the airport issue or have expressed qualified support, hoping a new airport would ultimately reduce the number of jets flying over them en route to landings at John Wayne Airport.
An erosion of support in these cities could cause problems for the county's airport plan, according to some who have closely followed the political debate over future civilian uses of the soon-to-be-retired Marine base.
"For the time being, the central county has seen the El Toro airport as having less of an impact on them than John Wayne. But that could change as people begin to look more closely at the issue," said Mark Baldassare, a professor of urban planning at UC Irvine who has conducted several polls on the issue.
"These communities are key to continued backing for the El Toro [airport] plan," he added. "If their view changes, it could further erode public support."
The Board of Supervisors is divided 3 to 2 on the airport, with the three supervisors who represent the north and central counties supporting it, and the two who represent the south and eastern areas of the county in opposition.
The emerging opposition in Tustin, Cowan Heights and East Orange does not change the political dynamics at the Board of Supervisors, because these cities are represented by Todd Spitzer and Tom Wilson, who already oppose the airport.
But the county can ill afford any dilution of public support for transforming the El Toro base into a commercial airport, because the South County cities alone are already causing the county headaches.
Not surprisingly, airport backers were quick to support the county's efforts to redirect the takeoff patterns away from central county homes.
Ultimately, however, it will be the Federal Aviation Administration--not the county--that will approve or disapprove of the flight patterns, according to Courtney Wiercioch, the head of the county's airport planning FAA group.
Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration have said they will not comment on the county's plans for El Toro until they are finalized next year.
Herman C. Bliss, manager of the FAA's Western-Pacific Regional Airports Division, said last week his agency is unlikely to review or sign off on takeoff patterns or any other matters until a final plan is approved by the Board of Supervisors.
Peggy Ducey, the deputy city manager of Newport Beach who helped facilitate the meetings between county officials and representatives of the central cities as part of a push to solidify airport support, said "it's imperative that the county work with the community. When you don't have good community participation, it is going to be very difficult" to maintain support.
Central City Residents Concerned
Since 1995, when voters passed an initiative paving the way for a commercial airport, the strongest support has come from Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Anaheim.
But recently, as community leaders in Tustin and Orange became more aware that all cargo and international flights would be flying directly over their communities, they have begun questioning the current plan.
In addition, a county mailer titled "The Myth Buster," which was designed to dispel misinformation about the airport noise issue, had the unintended effect of alarming some central city residents.
The mailer said that communities directly under the northerly flight path were Cowan Heights and Tustin.
Takeoffs over these communities "would have a very significant effect on my feelings" about the airport plan, said Saltarelli, who voted in favor of the county's airport reuse plan in December 1996 and lives in East Orange.
"We feel that in our area we have enough flights coming into John Wayne," said Saltarelli, who is now a consultant with Newport Beach on the airport issue. "Traffic into John Wayne comes directly over my house. It's important that before any decisions are made we assess the noise [impact]."
The Foothill Communities Assn., a homeowners group representing nearly all of North Tustin, has voted for a resolution opposing the airport because of the potential noise problems, said Irene Brace, the group's director.
Another homeowners group, the Orange Park Acres Assn. in East Orange, plans to vote on the airport issue next week. Its president, Laura Thomas, said the members are worried about the airport's potential impact on their quiet community.
"We are equestrian and rural and we want to maintain that," Thomas said.
Wiercioch said "those communities expressed real strong concern and we said, 'Let's see if we can go back to the drawing table and see if there is something we can do.' So far, [the consultants] have not identified problems with straightening out that flight track," meaning that departing planes may be able to take off to the north without curving to the west over Tustin and Orange.
Feasibility Study Due in May
The county is now preparing four options for the soon-to-be-abandoned, 4,700-acre Marine base, and those options are scheduled to be released next month. It's unclear how much noise Tustin and surrounding communities would experience under the plans--or under the proposed shift in the takeoff pattern.
But an earlier county proposal found that while jet noise would increase in certain parts of Tustin, the levels would remain well below federal standards of 65 decibels, averaged over a 24-hour period, and commercial aircraft would be significantly quieter than the current military flights.
The Marines, who are scheduled to leave the base in July 1999, generally direct their F-18 takeoffs to the east and their larger aircraft to the north and south, El Toro spokesman Matt Morgan said.
County officials say before any changes are made to the existing takeoff patterns, they must finish a feasibility study on directing planes due north toward the Santa Ana Mountains.
The so-called "Terminal En Route Procedures" study, expected to be presented to the Board of Supervisors on May 5, will determine whether the heavy jets will interfere with John Wayne traffic, and if they can lift up quickly enough to avoid the mountains, which are due north of the El Toro runways.
The county is responsible for crafting a detailed airport plan that meets federal air safety guidelines and is acceptable to surrounding communities, he said.
Once the final plan is sent to the FAA, officials will review it to determine whether it meets standards.
The county's efforts thus far to shield other cities from airport noise have caused some difficulties with the pilots' unions.
Leaders of the nation's two largest unions, the Air Line Pilots Assn. and the Air Pilots Assn., have complained that the county is placing noise considerations ahead of safety concerns--which county officials vehemently deny--by having the majority of flights take off to the east instead of the west, where they would fly directly over areas of Irvine, notably the Woodbridge section.
Both unions object to easterly takeoffs, saying airplanes would be forced to take off up a sloped runway, toward the mountains and with a tail wind.
The pilots' unions have not taken a position on the northerly departures, but some aviation experts say that takeoffs straight over the mountains could raise many questions about the future of John Wayne Airport.
"They won't be able to do that if John Wayne stays open," said Don Segner, a former official with the Federal Aviation Administration who is now retired and lives in Laguna Beach, explaining that these departing flights would interfere with the approach path of John Wayne Airport.
The county has still not made it clear what it plans to do with John Wayne Airport if El Toro becomes a commercial airport. Though the county's reuse plan calls for John Wayne to become a general aviation airport, used only by small private aircraft, county supervisors made it clear they wanted it to remain a commercial operation when they approved of the initial plan in 1996.
Until the county finalizes its plan, many in central county cities are anxiously hoping for the best.
"There is a difference between what the county says and what it does," said Tustin Mayor Jeffery M. Thomas, who met with Saltarelli and County Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier about the issue. "I am waiting to see this nailed down to the point there is no way it can change. If that happens, I would support the airport. If it doesn't, I'll be very concerned."
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County officials, fearing central cities could turn against a proposed airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, may change the takeoff route for planes departing north. Instead of turning northwest over Tustin and East Orange, they would maintain a more northerly heading over Irvine Lake.
Original flight path proposal
Possible new flight path