Orange County Register, Editorial,
April 22, 1998
From the Register web site at http://www.ocregister.com
Flying blind at El Toro
April 22, 1998
The Board of Supervisors' endorsement yesterday of El Toro airport "Plan C" — a facility that could serve 24 million passengers yearly, linked by a people mover to a John Wayne Airport that serves 9.5 million travelers — crystallized much of what has been troublesome all along about the county's approach to El Toro reuse.
The fact that the outcome hinged on the almost painfully delicate calibrations of a single supervisor — Bill Steiner — illustrates the arbitrariness of the whole process, the fact it has been driven not by a neutral search for highest and best use, but the hunches, whims, judgment calls and pre-ordained viewpoints and interests of people in a position to broker power.
Mr. Steiner's own initial reluctance to embrace Plan C — the third largest of the four options for El Toro commercial aviation unveiled last week by county airport planners — stemmed from concerns about noise impact, worries born of his own experiences growing up in Bell near Los Angeles International Airport. "I've lived a good part of my formative years under LAX's flight path," the supervisor recounted to the Register's David Parrish recently. "I'm just trying to bring down the impact on the community."
But, as he indicated at yesterday's Board meeting, he had to put that concern in context. In the end, he joined the two other pro-airport supervisors in signing on to Plan C because it offers more opportunity for international flights, at least from Canada and Mexico and possibly from the Orient, than the smallest airport option, "Plan A," which would serve fewer than 20 million passengers.
And noise impact? County officials pledged to seek permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to impose a late-evening curfew on El Toro flights, which effectively would limit even Plan C to perhaps fewer than 20 million annual passengers. It was with this understanding that Mr. Steiner cast his "aye" vote.
It may be wishful thinking, however, to assume his victory won't evaporate or be repealed. Existing federal law bars curfews, at least at airports in existence as of 1991, and perhaps at facilities built afterward. Whether the FAA could and would engineer a waiver for an El Toro airport is a question unlikely to be answered before the planning process is complete in 1999. And by then, Bill Steiner, who is currently in his last year as a supervisor, won't be in office to press the issue and remind county officials of any moral commitment they might have made to a curfew.
A process propelled mainly by the personal druthers of individual supervisors, or the agendas of behind-the-scenes movers and shakers, will always be subject to the criticism that decisions rest on narrow and perhaps transitory perspectives, with the potential to be overturned should a counter-perspective gain the upper hand politically.
This is not policy-making in the sophisticated sense of scientific application of market principles. If it were, the Board would not be relying on county staff to prepare the options from which to choose, but would be requesting proposals for El Toro from the global business community, and testing them without prejudice or allegiance to predetermined outcomes.