The Bell Curve: What has wings, flies and is a problem?

What's the biggest problem facing Newport Beach today? I mean for the people who live here. You and me.

C'mon, give me a straight answer. I'm taking a poll. Think about it for a while if you must. It's a little disheartening — even for deaf people like me — if the answer doesn't leap out at you.

So let me give you some clues. This is the sort of man-made disaster that we can prevent from happening. We can't prevent tidal waves or typhoons or hurricanes or earthquakes. We can only try as best we can to prepare for them if fate sends them our way. But what I'm fishing for here is preventable. And we can, and are, watching it happen — and not seeing it. That's the biggest problem facing Newport Beach.

Still puzzled? OK, here's one last clue.

It has wings and its natural habitat is in the air. It causes problems only when it runs afoul of mortals on the ground. This started to happen here when our Orange County Airport took on the name of a Hollywood cowboy and set its sights on turning a fine regional airport into one with inadequate space and inappropriate surroundings for its ambitions.

All that came to a head when the Marine Corps offered to sell their abandoned airfield at El Toro — which was far better suited to the growth agenda of the regional airport. That had to be approved by the vote of local citizens, and it was. Twice.

Then the city of Irvine raised a pot of money to hire away the PR team that had won the first two elections. Irvine won the third, and the good guys had to settle on negotiating a set of restrictions on the aircraft using what had by then become John Wayne Airport. The restrictions run out in 2015.

That's where we are now, and we aren't nearly as concerned as a lot of us think we should be.

This came to my attention last week when I received the current newsletter from the Airport Working Group of Orange County, an organization that has looked out for our interests throughout these events and still is as we come precariously close to the date when it all goes up for grabs once more. In the same mail was a Newport Beach newsletter updating the city's activities. It didn't help to ease our concern that half of the city's four pages were devoted to the new City Hall and the remainder to small items where the airport was deemed worthy of a few paragraphs, mostly about a new navigation system.

Much of a front-page article by AWG Board President Tony Khoury had to do with the Orange County Business Council's enthusiastic embrace of the predicted economic gains and job creation of the half-billion dollar expansion (passed off as "improvement") of John Wayne "without," said Khoury, "any recognition of the actual and/or social costs of such a project."

Khoury went on to say, "The Council analysis fails also to take into account the negative impacts of the project or totally discards them altogether. Every departure and arrival impacts the same local communities with noise, traffic and pollution. This ultimately results in a diminished quality of life and a relocation of residents elsewhere."

That's us he's talking about. When the noise regresses from difficult to impossible, we're forced out of one of the most beautiful places in the world.

I asked him what individual citizens could do to prevent this from happening. He suggested two things. First, join up with one of the organizations dedicated to this end (AWG and AirFair come to mind). Second, talk it up as much as you can regardless of how many cocktail parties you bore. And write letters to local newspapers. To this I would add pressing every candidate for local public office for his or her position on this matter, and give them hell if they don't come on strong for protecting our quality of life.

These suggestions come up pretty pale against the money and muscle of the Business Council members. But Khoury told me that taking a hard line can be counter-productive by setting the goal too high. Throughout our conversation the key phrase was repeatedly "we want to maintain the status quo when the new talks come up."

That, he expects, will be next year, and on the auction block will be our quality of life and the value of our properties.

Across the table, the "improvement" proponents will be enthusiastically trying to convert our regional airport into an international airport and seriously threatening our quality of life in the process. Whether or not we approve of their approach, it is becoming increasingly important that we recognize this to be the biggest problem facing Newport Beach and make very clear the strength and magnitude of our support for the people arguing our cause. If "maintenance" is the only position left for us, we'd better dig in and mount our weapons early.

It may be a long war.

JOSEPH N. BELL lives in Newport Beach. His column runs Thursdays.

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