No Fly Zone

El Toro Airport Watch No. 103

Sensible observers of county politics suspect the Irvine Co. secretly supports the county's disjointed, disingenuous plans for an international airport at El Toro. They know this because it's ludicrous to think a company that owns 60,000 acres of undeveloped land in OC-3,000 of which sit near the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station-hasn't yet formed an opinion on the base reuse. They know this because Irvine Co. boss Don Bren (net worth: $2.5 billion) is by far the richest and most powerful man in the county. They know this because not one supervisor has ever done or will ever do anything to displease the Irvine Co.

Mention El Toro to anyone at the Irvine Co., and you get the same answer, usually a variant of company senior vice president Larry Thomas' "the plans thus far proposed do not provide sufficient information" to say whether the company thinks flying 277,000 airliners a year over South County will hurt residents' quality of life. We've already seen one environmental impact report (ruled by a San Diego Superior Court judge to be misleading), four separate airport plans, and countless technical reports and studies funded by booster and opposition forces. When will the Irvine Co. have enough information?

Here's another piece of information for the company to consider: according to an April 13 city of Irvine report called "It's Always Been Non-Aviation," the Irvine Co. opposed using El Toro as a commercial airport during and after the city's incorporation in the early 1970s.

"Civilian or dual use of either or both the two Marine Corps air facilities shall be opposed for reasons of safety and environmental compatibility," wrote Irvine Co. vice president for planning Richard A. Reese in an Oct. 5, 1972, letter to the Orange County Planning Commission. "It shall be a policy to cooperate in the planning of systems which provide ground-transportation linkages to air-transportation facilities."

That sound logic-opposed for reasons of safety and environmental compatibility-was revealed 27 years ago, when no one had any plan, report or study on what an El Toro International Airport would look like. And that wasn't the first time Reese had written on El Toro. Two years earlier, on Nov. 3, 1970, he wrote the county planning commission that "logical extensions of the circulation elements have been anticipated which will accommodate any ultimate reuse of these facilities for urban development."

So when Irvine was becoming a city, the Irvine Co. made clear to the county that the only planes flying out of El Toro would belong to the Marine Corps. And once those were gone, the base would be gone, too. But once the base made the federal closure list in 1991 and information on a commercial-aviation reuse began emerging, the company suddenly became "neutral." Was the company's early opposition a mere public-relations ploy to get people into their "planned community?" Or is their current neutrality a tactic to keep the city of Irvine from declaring war on the company?

Thomas wouldn't comment "substantially" on the Irvine report, except to say the company was "taking a look at the documents, since they aren't documents we were immediately familiar with."

For Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran, the documents and report provide a priceless insight into the mysterious Irvine Co. mind. "The study confirms what many of us have been asserting all along, which is that Irvine was founded as a planned community on the assumption that the air station would never be converted to [commercial] aviation use," said Agran. "That was the historic position of the Irvine Co. before and after incorporation."

At the April 13 meeting, the Irvine City Council decided to "seek clarification" from the Irvine Co. on the Reese letters. We anxiously await their reply.

 
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