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Crowd Adds 500 Voices to Base’s Debate

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 500 people from across Southern California jammed a hearing Tuesday on a proposed El Toro airport in what has become a contentious regional battle over whether Orange County will help alleviate growing air-passenger demand through 2025.

A busload of people opposing expansion of Los Angeles International Airport spoke passionately about the need to preserve homes and communities surrounding the Los Angeles airfield, and called upon Orange County and its elected leaders to shoulder a share of the Southland’s air-traffic burden.

But a huge contingent from south Orange County complained about the prospect of aircraft noise and suggested an airport would harm the health and safety of area residents. They did so knowing it was a foregone conclusion that three of the five county supervisors most likely will ignore their pleas and vote later this month to develop the 4,700-acre former El Toro Marine Base as an international airport.

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The hearing was just one in a series of milestones this week in the El Toro airport debate.

Today, groups that oppose an El Toro airport expect to deliver 175,000 signatures to the registrar of voters, enough to put an alternative plan for an urban park on the countywide ballot next spring. The proposed initiative would replace airport zoning with parkland zoning.

And on Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to deliver its long-delayed analysis of air-traffic issues for the El Toro site. Opponents, and even some supporters, have questioned the safety of flight patterns proposed for the airport. They contend that takeoffs to the north would send jets into one of the busiest air corridors in the nation and takeoffs to the east would send planes too close to mountainous terrain.

The slim pro-airport majority on the board is hoping to get a favorable finding from the FAA’s report before supervisors vote on the El Toro environmental impact report Sept. 17. The county’s plans call for an international commercial airport that would serve 28.8 million passengers a year by 2025, though Board Chairwoman Cynthia P. Coad has suggested building a terminal that would handle only 18.8 million passengers.

On Tuesday, dozens of Westchester and Inglewood residents--opposed to an expansion of Los Angeles International Airport--were bused to the hearing and urged supervisors to “share the airport burden” by building an airport at the 4,700-acre former base.

Marie Hodgson of Westchester said she was “an Air Force brat” and has no hearing problems--disputing a common anti-El Toro complaint--after living on various air bases. But she is afraid that a proposed LAX expansion could wind up forcing her and her neighbors to give up their homes.

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“El Toro is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Hodgson said.

Some among the overflow crowd had to sit outside the board chambers in Santa Ana and listen to the speeches over a loudspeaker. Inside and outside, people seemed to wear their airport opinions. Those who were for an El Toro airport were garbed in “LAX Expansion, NO!” T-shirts; those against an El Toro airport sported lapel buttons that said, “No Bull,” a reference to charges that the county underestimated noise and traffic.

Laguna Woods Councilman Bert Hack, who lives in the retirement community of Leisure World, said his city lies under the proposed flight path and its elderly residents would suffer health risks because of noise and jet pollution.

“We are not interested in being killed,” Hack told supervisors, adding that the three pro-airport supervisors on the board were essentially telling Laguna Woods residents to “drop dead.”

The number of signatures that organizers for a South County coalition of nine cities have gathered for a park at the El Toro site is 2 1/2 times the 71,206 needed to qualify the Orange County Central Park and Nature Preserve initiative for the March ballot. If successful, the ballot would remove the El Toro airport designation from the county’s General Plan. The initiative calls for a large urban park, schools, health-care facilities, museums, industrial buildings and sport facilities.

Two weeks ago, a San Diego appellate court breathed new life into the initiative when it stayed a lower-court ruling that effectively killed efforts to put the initiative on the ballot. A final decision is pending.

The airport debate has been an emotional battle pitting mostly north Orange County areas against a core segment of the newer South County cities. But in recent months, residents of Inglewood, Westchester and other areas in Los Angeles County have become fixtures at public hearings and meetings on the airport.

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Inglewood resident Mike Stevens, a community organizer who’s against the LAX expansion, favors having an El Toro airport. He told supervisors the problem isn’t Inglewood versus south Orange County, but the growing number of aircraft and poor planning by regional governments.

Many like Stevens want to derail the $12-billion expansion plan favored by LAX officials by distributing the passenger traffic to regional airports. The LAX expansion would boost annual passenger traffic there from 67 million to 89 million by 2015.

El Segundo Mayor Mike Gordon told supervisors that LAX lacks open space to protect residents from noise and other harmful effects. “LAX has no buffer zone,” Gordon said. “El Toro’s runways are surrounded by a 14,000-acre noise buffer zone.”

But Robert A. Wolf, who has a construction firm in Moreno Valley, said the logical alternative is neither LAX nor El Toro but the Inland Empire, where the growth for airline passengers, air cargo and population is dramatically shifting.

Air cargo is estimated to grow to 5.2 million tons a year in the Inland Empire, from 600,000 tons now. Wolf added that the Inland Empire’s passenger growth is estimated to grow to 43.4 million passengers a year, up from 6.7 million.

Spurring the growth is the availability of affordable housing, Wolf said.

A Caltrans representative already has accused Orange County of making several invalid assumptions in the environmental report. The official said Caltrans believed some proposals would not alleviate negative impacts of the airport on nearby freeway intersections.

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For many in South County, the fight revolves around quality-of-life issues. And the threat of additional lawsuits abound.

Rancho Santa Margarita Councilman Gary Thompson said airplane departures would pass over the city at an altitude of 2,000 to 3,000 feet, 24 hours a day with no restrictions. Meanwhile, the county is pursuing the continuation of curfew and flight restrictions for John Wayne Airport.

“The city of Rancho Santa Margarita hereby formally notifies the board,” Thompson said, “that if an airport at El Toro is built due to adoption [of the environmental impact report], the city reserves the right to use all legal means available to hold any member of this board approving the EIR personally liable for environmental destruction to our city and for damages to the health, safety and welfare of our citizens.”

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