One of the hottest topics in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa is the possible expansion of John Wayne Airport (JWA). At community gatherings, such as a Feb. 15 meeting at Kaiser Elementary in Costa Mesa, residents listened in worried fascination to an outline of the county's Plan G. That plan, once derided by a Newport Beach resident as a "spear aimed right at the heart" of his city, would go into effect should South County residents succeed in stopping the county's plans to build a massive international airport at El Toro.
There's a lot to fear in Plan G. According to the county's El Toro Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR), the number of flights at JWA would take off—from an average of 250 per day to well over 800. To accommodate the expanded service, JWA's 337,000-square-foot terminal housing 14 jet aircraft gates would swell to a 1.84 million-square-foot monster with 52 gates.
JWA would become an empire after the fashion of its eponymous Hollywood actor's favorite characters, its boundaries expanding to swallow all the corporate parks (including the OC Weekly's world headquarters) between the airport and the 55 freeway. JWA is just 504 acres now, but Plan G would add approximately 700 acres to the airport. The estimated cost for all this: $4.3 billion—more than a billion dollars over what the county says it would need to build El Toro, which as proposed is 10 times as big as JWA and requires a new terminal, control tower, fuel tank farm, hangars, freeway access and four brand-new, regraded runways.
In marked contrast to the DEIR's feel-good language concerning El Toro (county officials actually insist El Toro will, among other things, make local traffic and air quality better), the county paints Plan G in the starkest terms, using the phrase "significant adverse impacts" to describe the new airport's transportation, noise, air-quality and aesthetic effects on the surrounding cities. In addition, the DEIR warns that under Plan G, "potential air-carrier and air-cargo accident risks at JWA would increase by approximately 235.7 percent."
If this sounds familiar, it's because it is; airport imperialism is a feature of life in Southern California. Just ask Paul Eckles, the former Inglewood city manager. He's seen firsthand how an expanding airport can decimate the city around it.
"LAX virtually destroyed Inglewood and Lennox," said Eckles, who now works as executive director of the South County cities allied against El Toro. "Neighborhoods that were okay until the jets started flying in 1959 went into the toilet after that. The city poured huge resources into the area—extra police, assessment districts, improved lighting. Nothing has really solved the problem. Neighborhoods under those flight paths simply can't sustain an American lifestyle."
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To prevent that kind of damage in their neighborhoods, Eckles and the cities he represents came up with Measure F. Also called the Safe and Healthy Communities Act, this initiative on the March 7 ballot would require construction of all future airport, toxic-waste dumps and jails housing more than 1,000 beds to first win the approval of two-thirds of the county's voters. Since two-thirds majority votes are difficult to get on any issue, it's clear Measure F would protect not only South County from El Toro, but also Newport and Costa Mesa from an expanded JWA.
But residents of Newport Beach will shake their fists and swear that Measure F's passage will ensure the expansion of JWA. Their evidence? Plan G. They would do well to consider that the anti-airport county supervisors—Todd Spitzer and Tom Wilson—oppose Plan G; indeed, they failed last year on a 3-2 vote to kill it.
Here's a challenge to all Newport Beach and Costa Mesa residents: call Second District Supervisor Jim Silva's office—(714) 834-3220—and ask why he continues to support a county plan that would devastate these communities. If you get any answer at all, it's unlikely to be the truth: that supporting Plan G is the pro-El Toro majority's best way of shaking loose money and votes from Newport Beach and Costa Mesa. It's a kind of polite extortion. Look out, they say: if we fail to build an airport at El Toro, then the county will have no choice but to expand JWA.
Ironically, then, Measure F is the last, best hope for Newport Beach and Costa Mesa. It would end forever those cities' worries over Plan G or any other plan to expand JWA. For pro-airport officials, like the Newport Beach City Council and the county Board of Supervisors, that's too scary to contemplate.