Somethings Remiss

El Toro Airport Watch No. 111

In mid-April, the city of Irvine released a report detailing the powerful Irvine Co.'s history of opposition to a commercial airport at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station as far back as 1972.

The report (see El Toro Airport Watch No. 103, April 23) contains extensive quotes from letters written by former Irvine Co. vice president Richard A. Reese at the birth of the city of Irvine in the early 1970s. Of those statements, this was the most powerful: "Civilian or dual use of either or both of the two Marine Corps air facilities shall be opposed for reasons of safety and environmental compatibility."

On April 13, Irvine Mayor Christina Shea, writing for the City Council, asked Irvine Co. vice president Gary Hunt for an explanation. Surprising no one, Hunt skirted the issue in a May 28 reply. Modestly saying his company was "but one voice in the discussion," Hunt's response kept to the now-hackneyed company line: there is not yet enough information to make an opinion.

"As a company with a substantial interest in the outcome [the company owns 60,000 acres of undeveloped land in the county], we have chosen to be a thoughtful and constructive participant in the planning process and leave the ongoing political battle appropriately entrusted to the voters and their elected leadership," Hunt wrote.

Far from leaving the battle to the voters, the Irvine Co. possesses and frequently wields unprecedented power in county government. The company owns the Irvine World News, which it hand delivers to every home in the city each week. It routinely contributes thousands of dollars to the campaigns of city and county supervisorial candidates, including all five current supervisors.

By claiming neutrality, it's possible the Irvine Co. figures it has a win-win situation: if the airport goes in, the company gets commercial development. (There's also reason to believe that John Wayne Airport, should the county decide to close it, would revert to the Irvine Co. under a long-standing land-use agreement.) And if the airport doesn't go in, the company gets to build many more acres of residential housing.

One might say the Irvine Co.'s position is Machiavellian, except that Machiavelli—a teacher Hunt and his colleagues have clearly looked to in the past—would urge the company to take a position. In Chapter 21 of The Prince ("How a Prince Should Bear Himself So As to Acquire Reputation"), Machiavelli wrote that powerful people who fail to take a side will ultimately alienate all sides, "for the victor dislikes doubtful friends . . . and the vanquished will have nothing to say to you, since you would not share his fortunes sword in hand."

There's substantial evidence that Hunt's neutrality is already hurting the company. Within the next several weeks, every new Irvine home buyer will receive a handbook on the proposed airport, detailing the risks they're taking by purchasing a home. And for the first time, assessment-district financing bonds for commercial and residential infrastructure in the city carry a disclosure statement detailing the county's proposed airport and its potential blight. Such a disclosure makes the bonds riskier and more expensive for the landowner—that would be the Irvine Co.—but they protect the city from running afoul of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

"It's hurting them now," said Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran. "This airport affects everything. Every issue gets put through that airport prism. The airport is increasingly their problem as well as our problem."

 
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