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Commentary: Expanded service at John Wayne Airport would harm O.C. for decades

John Wayne Airport and its runways
Expanded service for noncommercial flights at John Wayne Airport will drastically expand private jet service in the general aviation sector, writes columnist Lee Pearl.
(Courtesy of John Wayne Airport)

Newport Beach is rushing headlong toward a colossal mistake that our community will regret for at least 35 years. If citizens and impacted cities don’t intervene decisively and soon, an airport expansion will inundate our communities with noise and pollution and provide no plausible benefit to residents.

Under the proposed 35-year contract, two newly selected companies operating at John Wayne Airport will drastically expand private jet service in the general aviation sector. After offering a major capital investment, these two new fixed base operators (FBOs) will expect a return on their investment, meaning as many private jet flights as possible including during nighttime hours. The plan could not be more poorly suited to our community or the times we’re living in. Anyone living within a few miles of JWA can already attest to the problem of noise, but what’s more, a study performed at Santa Monica Airport showed that residents living nearby were exposed to more pollution than a freeway during that airport’s busiest hours.

In terms of flight availability for most Orange County residents, nothing will change. There still won’t be commercial jet flights in the late evening and early morning thanks to the established rules. But rich private jet owners in the general aviation area will play by their own rule book — flying more frequently and at all hours — and pass the cost, in terms of noise and pollution, onto the community below them. General aviation (private) jets can currently fly at all hours of the day or night as long as they meet outdated nighttime noise requirements. The new plan would park more jets and allow the expansion of late-night flights to be a burden on our communities.

Most Newport Beach residents don’t have any idea of the significance of this general aviation FBO decision. Representatives of activist groups and elected officials with good intentions like Still Protecting Our Newport (SPON), Airfair, Airport Working Group, Citizens Against Airport Pollution, as well as neighborhood organizations in Dover Shores, the Bluffs, Balboa Island Improvement Assn. and impacted cities including Newport Beach and Costa Mesa have been virtually excluded from this selection process. Orange County officials (operators of the airport) want to meet their revenue goals, and they have designed the approval process for this contract in order to breeze past watchdog groups and de-fang anyone with interests that contradict those goals. For instance, those against the change have not been able to see the initial proposals in their entirety, and possible behind-the-scenes revisions may never be made public. The process has been made to appear democratic, but when the inevitable complaints arise after the consequences of this expansion become widespread public knowledge, the county will point to the paltry disclosures it has offered up and claim that documents have been shared.

Local government agencies representing us should have never compromised at the beginning of this process putting residents in a position where all we can do is beg the county to not hurt us. We are now in that position. The only way to fix this problem is to change gears and attempt to force measures to safeguard our communities or possibly protest the process legally. Playing nice didn’t work, and what we will see at the Aug. 11 Board of Supervisors meeting to select the two FBOs is a sham process where the public will be given their three minutes to speak but all the decisions will have been made prior to the meeting.

It is troubling when everything has been decided by a public agency that does not have the same goals as our communities. Without the guarantee in the contract of these four things we all lose: 1.) the critical issue to close general aviation during nighttime hours to comply with commercial hours of operation; 2.) no Uber/charter jets in the general aviation area ever — all commercial operators must be located at the main terminal; 3.) no international processing facility as a part of either operation; 4.) preservation of space for small planes in a fair ratio to limit the lucrative expansion of private jet parking and flights at the airport.

The county will say its legal counsel will not allow the community-requested provisions to be written into the 35-year lease agreements. Not true. This must be guaranteed prior to the conclusion of the selection process of the new operators or we lose. We must make sure these decisions do as much as possible to protect all county residents. If these provisions are not set in stone now we won’t be able to fix them for 35 years, and by then, I will be over 100 years old or most likely dead.

The writer is the local government liaison to the Balboa Island Improvement Assn.

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