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A Stack of Initiatives

There appears to be little relief ahead for the confused voter in the El Toro airport debate. In the latest wrinkle, airport supporters say they will ask county supervisors to add three measures to the March ballot to thicken the plot. Voters already are going to have to sort out the complicated Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative, which would require a two-thirds public vote to build or expand airports, large jails near homes and hazardous-waste landfills.

We have the same reservations about these new ballot box planning gestures as we have on the one already planned. There would be new things to unravel: whether supervisors should have latitude to submit jail and hazardous-waste landfill projects, but not airports, to voters; whether those public works projects could be approved by a majority of voters; whether the Board of Supervisors should transfer aviation planning and airport implementation responsibility to joint-powers authorities of cities and the county.

What a mouthful. If the supervisors go along with this, they effectively will join the planning-by-ballot-box chorus themselves, and thereby lose whatever voice of persuasion they might have had during the March campaign in standing against land-use planning by the initiative process.

Planning for the airport still is unfolding, and there are serious questions about whether the county will be able to operate the flights as intended, or restrict the size and conditions of operation even if it wanted to. Indeed, the inability to count on restrictions is one of the concerns about the future of John Wayne Airport, once those currently in place expire. On El Toro, the Federal Aviation Administration has said it wants to hold its own community hearings.

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So it appears months before the actual balloting that the voters are headed for the polls for yet a third countywide vote on an airport without sufficient information to make an informed judgment about what they actually are going to get.

Add to this confusion this new set of questions on issues that introduce new layers of complexity. Public works projects like landfills and jails require a level of environmental expertise and analysis not likely to be available to or studied by the ordinary voter going into the polls. This kind of question is an invitation to vote one’s emotions.

The county ought to have learned something from earlier experiences at the polls concerning base reuse.

In effect, the federal procedure for deciding the future of El Toro was turned on its ear with the narrow passage of Measure A. The measure was advertised as preserving the option of having an airport, but in effect, it sealed the fate of the property.

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This decision, made upfront in the planning, destined the county to undergo the prolonged internal warfare it has experienced ever since. The county really has been trying to recover a semblance of balance in the process ever since that time.

Then there was the disastrous Measure S, which would have removed an airport from the table before it really was examined.

Now, before the voters have cast a single ballot on the Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative, there is a legal battle underway on that initiative.

Talk of yet more ballot questions only complicates this confusing situation.

The county is on track to build the airport, with the environmental impact process unfolding in the aftermath of the supervisors’ decision back in 1996 to go forward. Last week after the initiatives were floated, a majority of supervisors said they were pleased with the effort to place the three new measures on the ballot. Board Chairman Charles V. Smith has said he will place the measures on the board’s agenda this week for discussion.

All this adds up to fog settling over the El Toro runways.


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