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Measure F’s Popularity Bodes Ill for an Airport

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A week before the March 7 election, Orange County voters appear ready to pass a ballot measure aimed at preventing a commercial airport at El Toro, despite a campaign blitz by airport advocates who have tried to change their minds, a new poll shows.

Nearly three in five likely voters--58%--said they intend to vote yes on Measure F, which would require two-thirds voter approval for any new airport projects, jails with at least 1,000 beds a half mile from homes, and hazardous-waste landfills. Meanwhile, 24% say they will vote no, according to the poll conducted by Baldassare Associates for The Times’ Orange County edition.

Support for the measure remains strong since a separate poll conducted two weeks ago, when 56% of voters said they favored Measure F.

At the same time, more voters now say they are opposed to the measure, but that number falls well short of what would be needed to topple Measure F, said Cheryl Katz of Baldassare Associates.

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About one-fifth of likely voters remain undecided on the issue, which has become one of the most controversial land-use debates in Orange County with the closure of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

“Voter opinions are still not set in stone,” Katz said. “But Measure F appears to be in a strong position for passage.” Katz said the outcome will depend on the final week

of campaigning, as well as voter turnout.

A barrage of “No on F” brochures hit mailboxes over the past week as undecided poll respondents said they began making up their minds. The number of “no” voters--who generally favor a new airport at El Toro--jumped from 18% to 24% among the 484 likely Orange County voters polled randomly by telephone Feb. 23-26. The poll has a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

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But the number of “yes” voters--who generally oppose an airport--remained stable, indicating a committed majority so far resistant to last-minute appeals.

“There is absolutely no changing my mind,” said Audrey Swearengen, a 40-year Tustin resident who participated in the Times poll. “The airport must be stopped.”

Added Warren Ropp, 64, of San Clemente: “This measure doesn’t just protect us from the airport; it gives us the ability to say, ‘No, no, no, not here,’ to a lot of other undesirable county projects as well.”

Support for the measure is greatest in South County, where a coalition of eight cities has led the charge against the proposed airport. But poll results show that the arguments in favor of Measure F are swaying voters elsewhere too.

In North County, where support for an airport--and opposition to Measure F--has traditionally been strongest, half of voters now say they will vote for the initiative, with only 28% likely to vote “no.” The North County vote is critical because about 70% of the county’s registered voters live north of Irvine.

North County’s inclination toward Measure F is attributed to a number of factors, including a campaign begun months ago by South County cities stressing home safety, traffic and pollution concerns, while promoting a nonaviation plan for the base. Many voters said their support for the measure has less to do with the airport and more to do with the two-thirds voter requirement that the measure would bring to other major land-use projects.

“I could care less about the airport,” said Jesus Elizondo, 52, of Anaheim. “I just think people should have more of a say in the big-ticket stuff that the county is planning. More control on everything, that’s what [Measure F] gives the voters.”

Measure F backers said their message--that voters deserve a stronger voice--is working. However, they lamented a flood of last-minute mail by Measure F opponents claiming, among other things, that passage of the initiative could mean cities would have to build jails if the county could not.

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“It’s doublespeak,” said Len Kranser of Citizens for Safe and Healthy Communities-Yes on F. “The problem we see is that the other side has given jails a life of its own that’s bigger than reality.”

Opponents of the ballot measure will continue to raise those doubts by sending out “a sufficient amount” of mail in the final week of the campaign, said Bruce Nestande, chairman of Citizens for Jobs and the Economy.

“From the beginning, it’s been an uphill fight, there’s no denying that,” Nestande said. “For nine months, there’s been such a heavy infusion of South County tax dollars into the mailboxes, you can’t take that away. We’ve got some good information going out yet, so we’ll see.”

Nestande’s group has focused its opposition not on the airport but on concerns that the measure would make it too tough to build a new large jail in Orange County, which would mean more smaller jails would be needed.

Opposition to the measure has been aided by pro-airport groups arguing that John Wayne Airport--at about one-tenth the size of the base--is too small to handle the county’s future airport demands. South County officials insist that the region’s demand can be accommodated at airports such as Los Angeles International and Ontario without building El Toro or expanding John Wayne.

In Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, residents have been mobilized by fears that John Wayne Airport’s capacity would have to be at least doubled if El Toro isn’t developed as an airport. Just as “Yes on F” signs dot lawns across South County, “No on F” signs are equally numerous in neighborhoods near John Wayne.

“There has been a groundswell of opposition in the communities along the John Wayne Airport corridor,” said David Ellis, a consultant for the Airport Working Group, a Newport Beach-based homeowner group that has fought for a second Orange County airport for 20 years.

The debate over El Toro mirrors airport fights elsewhere in Southern California as air travel demand mounts over the next two decades. If El Toro is scrapped, the pressure could build for expansions of John Wayne, LAX and Ontario airports.

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Voters have twice supported the El Toro airport plan--in 1994 and 1996--but the mood has switched in recent months. Voters in the latest poll have maintained their positions from two weeks ago, when 54% said they oppose the county’s plans for El Toro.

If Measure F passes, it would require yet another public vote on El Toro, itself, unless the Board of Supervisors scraps the airport plan altogether--an unlikely scenario with board members so far committed to it. Measure opponents also have pledged to challenge its possible passage in court, arguing that the two-thirds requirement can be imposed only through a change in the state Constitution.

Measure F supporters anticipated a potential court fight: One provision of the measure says that the vote requirement for the projects covered would revert to a simple majority if a judge threw out the two-thirds ratio.

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* STUDY ECHOES CONCERNS

An El Toro study reiterates safety worries raised by various groups. A12

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Solid Support for Measure F

A week before Orange County voters head to the polls, support for Measure F enjoys a 34-point margin, according to a poll commissioned by the Times Orange County edition. Opposition to Measure F -- an initiative that would halt airport plans at the former El Toro Marine base -- has picked up six points from undecided voters since a similar Times poll was conducted two weeks ago, but the increase has done little to close the gap. A closer look at voter sentiment on Measure F:

If passed, Measure F would require two-thirds of the county’s voters to approve any projects involving airports, hazardous-waste landfills and jails with more than 1,000 beds to be built near residential areas. Pollsters read the ballot initiative and then asked: “If the election were held today, would you vote yes or no on Measure F?”

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Likely Voters Yes (+2%) No (+6%) Then Now Then Now 56% 58% 18% 24% North County Yes (+1%) No (+7%) Then Now Then Now 49% 50% 21% 28% South County Yes (+5%) No (+2%) Then Now Then Now 73% 78% 11% 13%

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Then: Poll conducted Feb. 9-13

Now: Poll conducted Feb. 23-26

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“If Measure F passes, it could stop the county’s plans for an international airport at El Toro. Knowing this, would you vote yes or no on Measure F?”

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Measure Likely North South F Voters County County Yes 58% 50% 80% No 33% 39% 15% Don’t know 9% 11% 5%

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“What is the main reason for your vote on Measure F?” (open-ended question)

Reason for Yes vote:

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Reasons Likely North South Voters County County Concerned about airport 38% 23% 63% Favor two-thirds vote requirement 38% 50% 20% Concerned about jail 6% 6% 4% Concerned about landfill 3% 5% 0% Other 15% 16% 13%

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Reason for No vote:

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Reasons Likely * Voters Oppose two-thirds vote requirement 39% Measure would stop El Toro 36% Sheriff opposes measure 7% Other 18%

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NOTE: The most recent poll of 800 registered voters was conducted Feb. 23-26 by telephone on weekday nights and weekend days. Respondents were selected at random from a computer-generated sample that included listed and unlisted telephone numbers. Upon reaching a household, interviewers asked to speak with a registered voter. Of those polled, 484were identified as likely to vote on March 7. The margin of error is 3.5% for the total sample and 4.5% for the subgroup of 484 likely voters. For smaller subgroups, such as regions, the margin of error would be larger. For this analysis, “north” included Newport Beach and cities to the north and “south” included Irvine and cities to the south. The earlier poll was conduced Feb. 9-12.

* The sample size for ‘no’ voters is too small for regional comparisons.

Source: A poll for the Times Orange County Edition by Baldassare Associates


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