This Is War?

Behind-the-scenes ties between El Toro Airport supporters and the countys biggest anti-airport groups have to make you wonder

Photo by David KawashimaIn the popular imagination, the battle over the future of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station is supposed to be Orange County's civil war—that's how one anti-airport leader put it when he said, "Blood has been spilled for far less." In Newport Beach, a small but immensely powerful cadre of real-estate developers has spent millions of dollars pushing for a mammoth new international cargo and passenger airport at El Toro. In South County—where residents fear they'll live under the new airport's flight paths—several anti-airport organizations have mustered an army tens of thousands strong, transformed city halls into centers of anti-airport activism, and talked of seceding from the county should the planned airport actually look like something more than a distant mirage.

The rhetoric is charged. Bill Kogerman, the feisty executive director of the anti-airport Taxpayers for Responsible Planning (TRP), calls airport backers "repugnant," "arrogant" "liars" who spew "garbage" and are "hell-bent" on overdevelopment. On the other side, pro-airport activists such as Dave Ellis and Bruce Nestande are equally shrill. They label their adversaries "childish," "irresponsible," "ignorant" "elitists" who "try every trick" to advance a "no-growth, anti-job agenda." Accusations of elaborate espionage schemes and wanton illegalities abound. Leaders in both camps eagerly tell audiences stories of alleged physical threats they've faced. Rarely does a week pass without someone voicing harsh words usually heard only in a combat zone or a Balboa Peninsula bar at last call.

But the overheated rhetorical war masks a secret so disturbing that efforts to reveal it roused angry threats of legal action. What is it that the public isn't supposed to know? Out of view, the businessmen who operate the campaigns for and against the proposed airport are close allies on other highly questionable local real-estate deals. They share financial interests, personal bonds, political ideologies and a startlingly similar—if not identical—affinity for the Newport Beach developers who are pushing most aggressively for a new airport near the heart of residential Orange County. There's nothing illegal in those ties, but they sure make you think: if the fight over El Toro is a war, it's a weird one.

There have been signs of weirdness all along. One came in March, when TRP's Kogerman told The Orange County Register that his group—founded six years ago as a "single-issue" grassroots organization to fight the proposed airport—had matured. The group is "more worldly now," Kogerman admitted. The consequences of the philosophical change were almost immediately apparent. In the June/July issue of TRP's newsletter, the group swerved dramatically from its single-minded anti-airport mission to effectively endorse a Newport Beach developer's controversial plans for a high-density commercial and residential development at the historic oceanfront Dana Point Headlands.

The unanticipated move set off a near revolt among anti-airport activists in Dana Point. The local paper published several letters from disturbed residents. Longtime city resident Geoff Lachner said TRP's endorsement of the Headlands developers was "outrageous, ridiculous" and showed TRP's "true colors" as pro-developer. Another resident, Jack Roberts, said it was, in its most favorable light, a "strategic blunder" that had unnecessarily alienated members of Dana Point's reasonable-growth movement. For years, Roberts has simultaneously fought the proposed airport and overdevelopment of the Headlands, the last large open coastal space in South County. The affable volunteer for the group Save the Headlands was "shocked" that TRP would align itself with the Headlands developer. After all, TRP's grassroots battle against politically powerful Newport Beach developers at El Toro mirrors the uphill fight of grassroots citizens in Dana Point against politically powerful Newport Beach developers at the Headlands.

Baffled, Roberts called and wrote Kogerman, politely asking for an explanation. Kogerman replied contemptuously, suggesting that the Headlands developers—a consortium headed by the family that owns the Times Mirror Corp.—are more concerned about the project's negative environmental impact than local citizens such as Roberts. He also inexplicably claimed that the developers had been wrongly "intimidated" by citizens opposing the project. After calling Roberts "counterproductive and illogical," Kogerman ended his letter brusquely. "We will prevail without you and those of your associates of a like mindset," he wrote. "I trust I have made my position sufficiently lucid precluding further comment on this subject."

"I never thought I'd see something like this," Roberts said. "We should all be working together. I just don't understand it."

Why would TRP—which has lost two countywide efforts to stop the airport at the ballot box—suddenly take on a new, equally controversial issue unrelated to El Toro? Why would TRP formally side with wily Newport Beach developers over the interests of anti-airport Dana Point residents, who have twice voted overwhelmingly against the developer's self-serving plans for the Headlands? Why would Kogerman seemingly abuse his influence with tens of thousands of anti-airport residents in South County? And, perhaps most important, with a critical third anti-airport initiative scheduled for March 2000, why would TRP take a stance that risks splintering its membership base, a sizable chunk of which is Dana Point residents who oppose powerful developers—at the proposed airport and at the Headlands?

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