After seven years of study, Orange County supervisors voted Tuesday to move forward with a hotly debated plan for an international airport at El Toro, pledging that the county would shoulder a bigger piece of the region's air traffic burden.
The action came in the board's approval of an environmental review of the proposed airfield at the closed Marine base, a step required by state law for the project to proceed. The vote clears the way for the federal government to turn over much of the base to the county for the airport.
The 3-2 vote followed a marathon public hearing and represents a milestone in efforts to build the airfield.
The review found that the project would create significant pollution and sleep disturbances in parts of south Orange County--but that the airport overall would be more beneficial than harmful.
Pro-airport supervisors were brief in their comments during an orderly meeting that stretched seven hours.
"It's time we had a vote on this thing," Supervisor Chuck Smith said before moving to approve construction of an airport that could handle 18.8 million passengers a year and 1.2 million tons of cargo. The plan could have accommodated up to 28.8 million annual passengers.
It was the third time in two months that the board had been scheduled to vote. Supervisor Jim Silva, who had regularly supported the proposal, stunned his colleagues last month by agreeing to send the plan to voters, before quickly reversing himself.
Airport foes greeted Tuesday's vote with shrugs. Several dozen speakers had earlier urged supervisors to reject the plan but said they assumed the board majority would approve it anyway.
Critics have long said their best hopes to kill the airport rested either with county voters or a judge. They have vowed to sue over the latest approval and hope to place a measure on the March ballot to instead create a large urban park complex at the former air base.
"We've been expecting this for years," said Lake Forest Councilman Peter Herzog. "We're just going to defeat it in March."
Tuesday's board action means that the Navy and the Federal Aviation Administration can finish their own reviews for transferring the base to the county, which are expected to be completed by April.
The approval comes as Los Angeles has pulled back from an ambitious expansion plan for LAX. Regional transportation officials have pushed for five years for El Toro to be built to relieve pressure at Los Angeles International Airport, which handled an estimated 6 million Orange County passengers last year, according to an LAX traveler survey.
The future of LAX was tightly linked to the fate of the El Toro airport by dozens of LAX-area residents, who pleaded with Orange County supervisors to approve it.
More than 200 people packed the board's hearing room to listen to 84 speakers. Dozens of them said they live in Inglewood, El Segundo and Westchester, the neighborhoods most affected by noise and pollution from LAX.
At times, supporters and opponents appeared to be addressing each other more than the project. Ever mindful of the row of cameras, supporters wore now-familiar white "El Toro YES" T-shirts while opponents were dressed in red.
Some of those against the airport told their Los Angeles County neighbors to mind their own business.
"This is an Orange County family matter," said Linda Finley of Laguna Niguel.
Los Angeles "Mayor [James K.] Hahn has said LAX will not expand," Jenny Baylis of Lake Forest said. "So why are you here?"
"We've been carrying your burden at LAX for years and years," answered Velma Slaughter of Inglewood.
"All of our children deserve peaceful sleep, not just yours in Orange County," said Jane Friedken, a former El Segundo councilwoman.
Local supporters urged supervisors to honor the 1994 vote approving the airport. "This was decided years ago," said Alan Beek of Newport Beach. "People voted to build an airport at El Toro."
Though Tuesday's meeting went on for hours, it wasn't the longest involving El Toro--or the longest to consider an Orange County airport project. In 1985, a vote on plans to expand John Wayne Airport continued past midnight.
As envisioned by Orange County officials, El Toro would become the second-largest airport in Southern California. LAX handled 67 million passengers last year, though a slump in travel after last month's terrorist attacks is expected to reduce that to about 45 million for this year.
John Wayne served about 7.8 million passengers last year, and 6.8 million used Ontario International Airport.
Supervisors last week agreed to allow additional public comments on the El Toro plan after having closed debate in September. Foes argued that new information had surfaced since then--chiefly a review by the FAA of airspace problems at El Toro released earlier this month.
The agency warned repeatedly that planned northerly takeoffs would delay flights arriving at John Wayne, Long Beach, LAX and Ontario airports, disrupting flight schedules across the Southland.