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By Charles Lam
Photo by Johan VogelFor at least four years, a small group of county residents has pushed for the construction of an urban park at the now-shuttered El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. They're not proposing your typical OC park—a sun-blasted, mile-square patch of Kentucky bluegrass mowed down to the sterile earth. They're talking about a park as lush and relaxing—as monumental —as New York's Central Park and San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
Until recently, the proposal was the project of a small group of progressive, slow-growth activists working with officials at Irvine City Hall and specifically with Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran. They see it as a two-for-one deal: they bury the county's plans for El Toro International Airport beneath rolling meadows, shade trees and trails, and they build one of the world's great parks.
But on Aug. 13, they discovered an unlikely supporter when an old voice made a new call for the death of the county's hated plans for an El Toro International Airport and the conversion of a large portion of the base's 4,700 acres to parkland.
Writing in The Orange County Register, longtime Orange County Republican Party head Tom Fuentes urged readers to "forget the airport. Let the federal government transfer El Toro from the Pentagon to the Interior Department and create a park for all Americans. How about Richard Nixon Urban National Park?"
I don't care if they stuff Nixon's corpse and mount it at the park entrance. I'm for a park.
But Tom Fuentes? As head of the Republican party, he authorized GOP-funded poll guards in heavily Latino voting areas during the 1988 election. He's also the chosen successor to take over Steven "The Jews Might Have Killed Kennedy" Frogue's seat on the South Orange County Community College District (SOCCD). And yes, he's also the guy who once told the Los Angeles Times that he could "tell you the registration of the people in a house by observing the neatness of the lawn and what cars are in the driveway."
Wooohooo! The rightest of the right-wingers, the tribal chieftain of the Republican Cavemen himself, is now standing beside liberal Larry Agran in calling for a massive people's park at El Toro.
And he's doing a pretty decent job. Granted, he wants to call it Nixon Park, but you have to take the good with the bad. Consider the following from his Register piece, which echoes 19th-century park designer Frederick Law Olmstead's vision of parks as "a single work of art":
"[H]ow about a spectacular urban national park with vast green areas and plenty of orange trees to enshrine the county's agricultural heritage and provide contact with the land for generations to come?" Fuentes wrote. "With Saddleback Mountain [sic] in the distance and the local foothills as a backdrop, an urban national park in Orange County could be a dream come true."
Fuentes also spent valuable column inches referencing his old mentor, the late 5th District Supervisor Ronald Caspers. Among the supervisor's proudest achievements, Fuentes wrote in language that would make any slow-growth activist proud, was the supervisor's work to preserve Newport's Back Bay.
"Caspers wanted the Back Bay to remain undeveloped and natural for future generations," Fuentes wrote, explaining that the Irvine Co.'s early marina plans "would encroach on the pristine habitat of shore birds and local wildlife." If you believe Fuentes, Caspers killed that marina. "Thanks to Caspers' committed efforts," Fuentes wrote, "rather than more development, wide expanses of natural open space and an ecologically sensitive county park are today on the estuary acreage amid residential surroundings."
Fuentes didn't return the Weekly's phone calls for this story. But it's easy to speculate on why Fuentes decided to break his long-standing decree that in order to preserve unity, "Republicans do not speak of El Toro."
Fuentes' appointment to the SOCCCD board runs out in November, when he says he'll campaign for a full term. This would be the first election bid for the 51-year-old political insider. But the canny Fuentes obviously understands that the district is deep in the Saddleback Valley—solid anti-airport country. School officials may have no official role in the airport debate, but in South County elections, almost nothing else matters.
It's just as easy to speculate that Fuentes has grander plans for himself. Whispers have floated around for years that current 3rd District Supervisor—and airport opponent—Todd Spitzer is looking for a higher office. Anyone jumping into Spitzer's vacated chair would need solid anti-airport credentials. And the Aug. 13 Nixon Park proposal is a good start for Fuentes, a longtime 3rd District resident.—Anthony Pignataro