Orange County Airport Backers Sue to Overturn Voter Initiative

MARCH 19, 2002

In a final bid to preserve eight years of planning, backers of a commercial airport at El Toro filed suit Monday to overturn a voter-approved measure that rezones the former military base for a park.

The lawsuit asks the court to invalidate Measure W, the Orange County Central Park and Nature Preserve Initiative, which passed March 5 with 57.8% of the vote. It claims that the measure usurps the role of the Board of Supervisors as the sole entity responsible for planning the conversion of the base under federal and state law.

The suit was filed in Orange County Superior Court against the county by the Airport Working Group, Citizens for Jobs and the Economy, Garden Grove and the Orange County Regional Airport Authority, a coalition of 15 North County cities. Citizens for Jobs and the Economy was formed in 1994 to promote the new airport; the Airport Working Group wants an El Toro airport to ease pressure to expand John Wayne Airport. The lawsuit also asks that the matter be heard by a court outside Orange County. Several suits involving government action on El Toro have been heard in Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

Airport foes said they expected the legal challenge, which was threatened within hours of this month's election and said it was a desperate move. "This is all part of their unwillingness to accept the will of the people," said Len Kranser, spokesman for Citizens for Safe and Healthy Communities, which promoted Measure W.

Cypress Mayor Lydia Sondhi said the North County cities group views the closed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station as a regional asset that must be protected. Every city north of Irvine -- with the exception of Tustin -- voted against Measure W, dubbed the Great Park plan.

The foundation of the lawsuit is that El Toro's fate is beyond the reach of local voters, said attorney Fredric D. Woocher, who drafted the suit. A published opinion last year by a state appellate court in San Diego, which invalidated another anti-airport measure passed in 2000, confirmed supervisors' authority, he said. In that opinion, the justices wrote: "There is a strong legislative indication that the board has been delegated exclusive authority for all actions regarding planning for reuse of MCAS El Toro."

"I think based on this, it's DOA," Woocher said of Measure W.

The suit also alleges that Measure W was deceptive. For example, the measure states that the base may be given to the county free for a park. But the day after Measure W's passage, the Navy announced that, without an airport at El Toro, it intended to dispose of the base through public sale.

Monday's filing came the day before supervisors hold their first public discussion on El Toro since the election. Supervisors will decide today whether to restructure the county's 30-worker El Toro planning office and begin preparing a non-aviation plan for the base. The Navy has set a deadline of April 23 to decide how to dispose of the base, a decision which likely will include selling all or part of it.

A majority of supervisors said before the election that they would follow the will of voters and pledged not to challenge passage of Measure W in court. However, the county is now named as the defendant in the suit filed Monday--the same position it held with the 2000 anti-airport initiative, Measure F.

The county's defense of that suit was tepid at best, Kranser said, and forced anti-airport forces to join the lawsuit to present a vigorous defense.

Among the arguments in favor of Measure W will be the 1994 voter passage of Measure A, Kranser said, which rezoned the base for an airport and airport-compatible uses. Measure A was upheld after a legal challenge by a coalition of cities led by Irvine and Lake Forest.

"Since Measure A was found to be legal, then it would seem reasonable that Measure W, which overturns Measure A, is legal by the same theories," Kranser said.

The South County cities argued that Measure A was "preempted by and inconsistent with" the State Aeronautics Act, but an appellate panel ruled otherwise.

"In this case," the justices said in 1997, "we find nothing in the State Aeronautics Act [that] prevents voters from adopting a general plan amendment which may impact an area subject to the Airport Land Use Plan."

Source: Los Angeles Times