The special election in Orange on Tuesday was not, it turns out, just about filling a vacant City Council seat. It also was an unofficial referendum on plans for a commercial airport at the old El Toro Marine base.
Voters in the once overwhelmingly pro-airport city elected, by a landslide, the candidate fiercely opposed to the county's airport plan. Carolyn Cavecche's victory means a majority on the Orange City Council opposes the airport.
"Many people see those runways as turrets on a gun that can spin in any direction," said Fred Smoller, chairman of the political science department at Chapman University. Residents, he said, have realized that the county's plans for an El Toro Airport could mean additional flights over their homes.
The shift in Orange is a major political blow to airport advocates. The city is on the brink of bolting from the coalition of northern Orange County cities created to support the El Toro plan.
Villa Park walked out of the Orange County Regional Airport Authority in April. Fullerton took a step toward withdrawing Tuesday.
"I see us pulling Orange out within the next 30 days," said Orange Councilman Mike Alvarez.
The Orange council had been split 2-2 on the El Toro airport plan before Cavecche's victory.
Alvarez still lacks the votes to pull Orange out, because his ally, Dan Slater, wants to remain in it to pressure the county to shift its flight plan away from East Orange.
"I'm ready to walk if the county doesn't acquiesce to a study of all viable plans," Slater said.
The revolt centers around several member cities that support an El Toro Airport but not the county's plan for it. They fear that the plan will send more flights over their cities.
County officials are refusing to consider a change in proposed flight paths, saying it would create too much of a noise nuisance for 2,500 homes planned south of the former base.
Any such changes also would delay federal environmental approval of the project until voters decide on an initiative that would replace the airport with a large urban park. Supporters of that initiative are hoping to gather enough signatures to get it on the March ballot.
Bruce Nestande, president of the pro-airport group Citizens for Jobs and the Economy, is hoping that disgruntled members of the coalition will sit tight. He says changes in flight patterns are still likely as the Federal Aviation Administration proceeds with its review.
"If they are in support of an airport they should wait for all the facts to come in," he said. "Obviously, we have professional differences of opinion here. Let them be resolved by the FAA."
The unintended consequence of the El Toro plan falling through, Nestande said, could be increased flights out of John Wayne Airport. That would have a major impact on Orange.
Smoller said Nestande has good reason to be anxious about the potential defection of Orange from the coalition.
"If a pro-airport city like Orange leaves, there is no telling who is next," he said. "This is a city where many people feel they would only get benefits from [an El Toro Airport]. This is very significant."