A Too-Modest Proposal

That stink you smell emanating from the County Hall of Administration is the stink of defeat. On Sept. 28, pro-airport Orange County Supervisor Cynthia Coad recycled old proposals to reduce the devastating impact of El Toro International Airport—fewer passengers, no international flights—presented them as new, and demanded that this new evidence of official flexibility be met with immediate concessions on the part of anti-airport South County residents.

The problem, of course, is that pro-airport board members have made precisely the same offers in the past—with no luck. But the Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register offered Coad a big assist, giving her proposal the kind of front-page local coverage that implied this, at last, is something new and different.

It isn't. Five times since December 1996, supervisors hoping to appease El Toro opponents have offered radical new designs that were neither new nor radical. You'll remember, perhaps, the people mover that was supposed to whisk travelers between equally diminutive airports at El Toro and John Wayne—a plan that was scrapped when it was revealed within hours to be a multimillion-dollar fantasy. Or the promise to ban nighttime flights at El Toro—clearly illegal under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules. Hoping to blunt South County's popular proposal to build parks and a university at El Toro, county officials countered with a "lean and green" plan of their own, one with golf courses and wide open spaces to attract wildlife—precisely the sort of mixing of ducks and turbine engines the FAA prohibits near airports. The plan to mollify Irvine residents—by sending flights east, away from the city—ran into reality in the shape of nearby hills and a powerful tailwind. Each of the plans was a tactical blunder—quickly thrown together, rashly proposed and just as immediately relegated to the shredders.

Coad's plan will likely end up similarly. She says she'll push for fewer passengers, but she conveniently fails to mention the several thousand cargo flights per year in the county's plan. Her offer to ban international flights makes a virtue of necessity: the cumbersome, decades-long process of attracting international flights doesn't involve the county, but rather the U.S. State Department, the FAA, foreign governments and airlines; it was unlikely to succeed even in the county's most optimistic scenarios until well into the next century.

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News from the pro-airport camp suggests the troops are demoralized. The fact that they would now rally around a collection of tried-and-rejected proposals suggests their leaders are visionless. Two weeks ago, pro-airport strategist and former county supervisor Bruce Nestande attacked county officials such as Coad for their failure to fully prosecute the war for the airport; this week, he called Coad's tepid, tired proposal "reasonable."

Reasonable? Demanding South County residents negotiate in good faith over how—but not whether—an airport will be built in the midst of their communities is a little like asking a woman to negotiate with her rapist, not about whether he will rape her, but how severely he will hurt her in the process.

Coad said her too-modest proposal was prompted by her "sadness" about the heated conflict between pro- and anti-airport activists. Note to Coad: invest in Kleenex. There's going to be a lot more crying before this is over.

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