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O.C. panels in holding pattern over proposed general aviation upgrades at John Wayne Airport after Newport Beach objects

Crows fly over the runway at John Wayne Airport on Wednesday, March 7.
Private jets sit under a flock of birds near the runway at John Wayne Airport. Orange County’s Airport Commission and Board of Supervisors have postponed votes until May on upgrading offerings for general aviation.
(File Photo)

Orange County’s Airport Commission and Board of Supervisors have delayed votes until May on proposed changes to general aviation offerings at John Wayne Airport after Newport Beach objected to what it considers the last-minute release of a key section of the project’s environmental review.

An outside lawyer for the city sent a letter to the Airport Commission on Wednesday — the day it was scheduled to vote on an advisory opinion for the Board of Supervisors in advance of the board’s meeting Tuesday — saying the final version of the environmental impact report wasn’t released until April 9 and that a health risk analysis that was supposed to be included didn’t come out until Monday after being mistakenly omitted — giving neither the commission nor the public adequate time to digest the information.

“Given the technical nature and importance of the new health risk analysis, the county should circulate the analysis for public review and comment rather than cramming it into the final EIR at the last minute,” wrote attorney Andrea Leisy of the firm Remy Moose Manley.

The commission and the Board of Supervisors postponed their votes after Newport’s objection. The commission will return to the topic May 1; the supervisors May 7.

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Proposed enhancements to general aviation services at JWA would include a new terminal — the airport currently has terminals only for commercial service — and dedicated, fee-based customs screening for non-commercial international flights. Plans also include infrastructure updates such as buildings and airfield roads to comply with current Federal Aviation Administration standards. The proposed changes would stay within the airport’s existing footprint.

Airport officials anticipate a few more departures per day under their preferred option. The county, which owns and operates JWA, says the updates would provide facilities to serve an increase in the number of private jets at the airport.

Newport’s letter also called the county’s response to the city’s comments on the environmental report inadequate and took issue with the assumption that cumulative noise and air quality effects would be mitigated by the Boeing 737 MAX joining the mix. The FAA last month grounded the airliner indefinitely after catastrophic crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia.

Airport Commissioner David Bailey and Chairman John Clarey leaned toward adding time to study the objections from Newport.

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“There’s a feeling of pushing this through and I don’t think that’s our intent,” Bailey said. “My intent is to be a good neighbor. I think all of our intent is to be a good neighbor.”

Newport residents who live near the airport departure path relayed their complaints and concerns.

Councilman Jeff Herdman, who also is chairman of the city Aviation Committee, said the county’s process was rushed, with a draft version of the environmental report coming out last fall and the final version in the past few days.

The City Council backed a plan in March that would allow for FAA-required adjustments but keep the frequency of private aircraft departures the same and not add a new terminal.

“People in affected communities need to come first in this decision-making process,” Herdman said Wednesday after pausing as a jet took off a few dozen yards from the commission’s meeting room at John Wayne Airport. “Please help to ensure that the [improvement plan] does not sacrifice safety, security and accountability and create more noise and pollution impacts for thousands of Orange County residents for the convenience of a select group of airport users.”

Newport residents fear that expanded accommodations for private jets would lead to an increase in traffic from the jets, which are nearly as loud as commercial airliners and are not held to the same time restrictions for flights.

Resident Dennis Bress said the process doesn’t need to be adversarial.

“But at some point when you have a process that is stemming out of how do you meet demand, we’re saying at this point, ‘No, don’t meet that demand. Don’t head in that direction,’” he said. “We’re done. … John Wayne Airport is big enough.”

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