A lesson for all those who oppose the development of airports – be careful what you ask for, you might get it.  Ten years ago the City of Irvine, California, won its epic battle over the conversion of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station (“El Toro”) to a new commercial airport for Orange County, California.  The site is more than 3,000 acres in size, and was, at the time, surrounded by a 14,000 acre “no development” buffer zone, that the military had maintained to insulate itself from liability for noise and other impacts from aircraft operations at El Toro. 

Despite the largest land use buffer around any airport in the nation, and the fact that the noisiest military aircraft then in existence, the F-14, F-16 and F-18 fighter jets, had been operating regularly and continuously out of El Toro for more than 50 years, when El Toro was marked for closure under the Base Reuse and Realignment Act, 10 U.S.C. § 2687, et seq., (“BRAC”), and conveyed to Orange County through a public benefit conveyance, a number of cities in South Orange County, including Irvine and Laguna Niguel, banded together to stop the conversion.  Their alternative was a 3,600 acre “Great Park” on the El Toro site, to include sports facilities, entertainment venues, and wildlife preservation areas, and limited commercial and residential development on the periphery. 

It was a very convincing story, and, ultimately, in 2003, after 10 years of political and legal battles and the expenditure of many millions of dollars on both sides, the effort prevailed in the passage of an Initiative, Measure W.  The Initiative transferred land use planning authority from Orange County to the City of Irvine, for the purpose of developing the “Great Park.”  The only problem is, another 10 years and mega-millions of dollars later, the Great Park remains an empty field hosting an occasional tent show or fair, and is on the verge of becoming what its skeptics expected all along.

Under the original scenario in its 2003 EIR, Irvine stated that the Great Park would have allowed, in addition to soccer fields and playgrounds in the nature of a New York Central Park, a 3,625 unit residential development by Lennar Corporation and associated commercial and office space.  However, in a County fringed by beaches along its entire length and replete with State and local parks, Irvine and its partners were unable to obtain the $1.4 billion in State funding they had counted on for the development of the “Great Park.” 

Predictably, therefore, they have made a deal with a subsidiary of the original developer to allow, not 3,600 residential units, but as many as 10,700.  Moreover, the purported wildlife corridor, most of which was comprised of drainage ditches in the first instance, will be relocated and cut back to 132 acres.  In addition, the developer will be allowed to construct 3.4 million square feet of medical science development, and 1.5 million square feet of commercial and office space.  In return, the developer, instead of the State, will provide $125-$175 million toward construction of a lake and sports complex with as many as 24 soccer fields (despite the fact that substantially all the schools in South Orange County have soccer fields). 

Also predictably, the Draft Environmental Impact Report (“DEIR”) for the new project, issued July 17, 2012, discloses that the “swap” will result in “significant and unavoidable impacts” on air quality and traffic “unless agencies not under Irvine’s control take measures to avoid them.”  So, in the end, the “Great Park” that was supposed to be the “playground of Orange County” has become yet another housing and commercial development, with traffic and air quality impacts on surrounding residents even greater than those anticipated for the erstwhile airport, and which Irvine apparently takes no responsibility for mitigating.  The lesson this teaches to residents wary of airport development is to be certain that the alternative is an improvement.