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Mittermeier’s Glum View on El Toro Alters the Equation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Opponents of an El Toro airport were heartened Thursday by departing county CEO Jan Mittermeier’s first public comments seriously doubting that it would ever fly, while airport proponents castigated her, saying she is in good part responsible for its problems.

Mittermeier, in Thursday’s Times, said Measure F, the initiative that voters passed in March, requiring a two-thirds public vote to approve an airport, makes it “extremely difficult” for one to be built.

“Right now, you couldn’t get a simple majority of voters” to endorse it, she said.

The comments, Mittermeier’s most extensive to date on a project she helped oversee, provided new ammunition for those who for years have bitterly fought an airport.

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“I concur with her 100% and I helped bury it,” said Irvine Mayor Christina L. Shea, whose city has led the opposition. “As far as I am concerned . . . it is not going to work for Orange County. It is dead.”

Airport backers said Mittermeier, who was effectively dismissed this week by the Board of Supervisors, wasn’t the right person to lead the airport project.

“I don’t want to get into a Jan bashing; that is not productive,” said Bruce Nestande, president of Citizens for Jobs and the Economy, a pro-airport group. “She has great skills in certain areas, but in this area, managing this project, those skills were not apparent. We wouldn’t be three or four years behind schedule if that weren’t the case.”

Even airport opponents singled Mittermeier out as an unwitting ally in their effort to kill the plan.

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“She has added to and been a catalyst for the controversy,” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer. “The reason I have been able to make so many attacks on the planning process is because of the flawed way Jan has handled it.”

Supervisors’ Chairman Chuck Smith, who favors an airport, took issue with Mittermeier’s assessment of its prospects.

“If it is her opinion that the airport is dead or in limbo, then that is her view. It is not our opinion, and it is part of the reason that we had a parting with Mrs. Mittermeier,” he said. “We felt that we needed to get on with the planning instead of taking the attitude that it is dead.”

An ‘Endless Loop’ From Measure F

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Mittermeier described Measure F as virtually insurmountable for airport proponents because it creates “an endless loop” in the planning process by requiring additional public hearings.

Her pessimistic assessment surprised many and underscored the challenges airport backers must face if commercial planes are to ever use the former Marine Corps air station.

The key requirement of the measure is two-thirds’ voter approval before the county can build airports, large jails near homes or hazardous-waste landfills. Proponents say the measure has serious legal problems and they predict it will not survive scrutiny by the courts. A judge is expected to rule July 7 on the measure’s constitutionality.

Dave Ellis, a political consultant to the Airport Working Group of Orange County, which has advocated an airport since 1993, predicted that “parts of Measure F will be overturned,” and he pointed out that the judge had already voided a section that prevented the county from spending money on promoting an airport through lobbyists and public information programs without voter approval.

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Airport backers disagreed with Mittermeier’s view that a majority of voters in the county oppose an airport at El Toro. They also pointed out that county voters in 1994 approved Measure A, which authorized a commercial airport at El Toro, and that Measure F did not void that vote.

“As long as Measure A remains the land use law of Orange County, the airport is very much alive,” said Ellis.

Supervisor Cynthia P. Coad said an airport at El Toro is not dead, but she did blame county business leaders who fail to speak out publicly for an airport that they privately tell her the county needs.

“I think that is the missing link,” said Coad, who favors an airport. “Until people really know how crucial an airport is to the economy, [until] companies have the guts to speak about it, it will just sit there.”

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