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By Charles Lam
Photo by Jack GouldDespite recent promises of a smaller, "friendlier" airport, county officials secretly continue to plan for a monster international airport at El Toro.
In a Nov. 29 meeting at the White House, county Supervisor Chuck Smith told federal officials the county is looking toward an airport several times larger than the more politically palatable models offered in recent weeks.
"We never planned to have a 38 MAP [million annual passengers] airport right off," Smith said, according to notes from the meeting. "It will be developed in phases. Maybe start with an 8 MAP —building to an 18 or 28 MAP. Other boards will make future decisions whether or not to build larger airports based on demand. The plan may very well be downsized, maybe built out later or sooner."
Smith's comment is included in notes from the meeting obtained by El Toro Info Site editor Len Kranser and posted on his website (www.eltoroairport.org/ news/whitehouse.html).
Smith's description paints a starkly different picture of the county's plans for El Toro. Cynthia Coad, Smith's board colleague, has tried to sell angry South County residents on a more neighborly El Toro Airport. Coad's proposals paralleled those of the airport's biggest booster, real-estate mogul George Argyros.
The meeting notes suggest that Argyros' public proposal bugged the pro-airport Smith. "Argyros wants a smaller airport . . . thinks he can run this show," Smith reportedly told officials of the Navy Department and the Federal Aviation Administration. He was apparently referring to Argyros' recent op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times calling for an airport "that would serve, at most" 14 million to 18 million passengers every year.
Smith traveled to Washington with fellow Supervisor Jim Silva and other pro-airport county officials. They hoped the 75-minute meeting would lead the feds to grant "conditional approval"—a quick sign-off on the county's airport plan that would allow commercial flights at El Toro immediately.
But the notes show that federal officials killed that dream.
"We cannot move ahead with conditional approval," Navy official William Cassidy told Smith, according to the notes. "The best we can do is act after the reuse [environmental impact report] is certified" in September 2001. Translation: federal officials will do nothing until the county has approved its master plan and accompanying EIR late next year. Following that approval, it's likely airport opponents would do what they've always done: sue the county. That means more delays; more grass sprouting out of cracks in the runways, more years without a single plane landing at El Toro.
Smith twice suggested Cassidy's time line would "kill us."
There was more bad news for Smith. The notes suggest that Silva, Smith's longtime board ally, is waffling on the airport. Notorious for being led through board meetings with note cards, Silva at one point asked FAA officials a simple yet astute question: "Does the FAA want additional airport capacity in the Southern California region?"
The notes show FAA officials balked, calling it "an unfair question." This irritated Silva, who responded, "If there is no need, I'd just [as] soon forget the whole thing."
Emerging from the meeting with his coalition in tatters and his plans a flaming wreck, Smith told The Orange County Register that White House officials assured him they would help him out. Said Smith, "I was very pleased."