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.