The future of the El Toro Marine Corps base in Orange County remains as clouded as ever, with voters likely to decide in March on an initiative that could doom a commercial airport proposed for the site. A 3-2 majority on the Orange County Board of Supervisors continues to push ahead plans for an international airport at El Toro, located in and adjacent to the City of Irvine. But the Safe and Healthy Communities initiative would require two-thirds of voters to approve a new airport. Further increasing tensions is the creation of new cities near El Toro, partially in response to the county's airport plans. Those incorporations result in new political entities that can aid the anti-airport fight. After years of winding down activity, the Marine Corps left El Toro for good in July. Because El Toro appeared on the base closure list in 1993, a great deal of time existed to plan for base reuse. However, Orange County split into pro- and anti-airport factions with the passage of a 1994 initiative that designated the 4,700-acre site for an airport. A 1996 initiative to overturn the previous one failed, further bolstering airport supporters. The plan advanced by the county, which the Department of Defense has designated as the official reuse agency, calls for an airport capable of handling 28 million passengers and 2 million tons of air cargo a year. (See CP&DR, January 1997, July 1996.)That is roughly the number of passengers at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, and about three times the number of passengers who currently use the heavily constrained John Wayne Airport, eight miles west of El Toro. The county is completing an environmental impact report, which supervisors are scheduled to consider next spring. But unincorporated communities south and east of El Toro are unhappy with the county's plans and are joining the fray as new cities. The gated retirement community Leisure World, which lies directly under the El Toro flight path, incorporated as the City of Laguna Woods in March. Voters in the planned community of Rancho Santa Margarita, a few miles east of El Toro, were expected to vote for cityhood on November 2. No major opposition arose to making the community of 31,000 people Orange County's 33rd city. Next up on the cityhood list is Aliso Viejo, a community of about 40,000 people southwest of El Toro which also lies under the flight path. The new Laguna Woods City Council (see CP&DR, May 1999) almost immediately voted to join a coalition of seven other cities, known as the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, that is fighting the proposed airport. Airport opposition is not the only reason behind the latest two proposed incorporations, but it is a factor, said Dana Smith, Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission executive officer. "Like everything in Orange County, El Toro sits as an undercurrent," Smith said. The city coalition this year plans to spend about $6 million on marketing and planning. The coalition continues to fine tune its Millennium Plan, which calls for a mix of industrial, retail and residential development at El Toro, plus parks and schools. The plan won an award from the California Chapter of the American Planning Association in October but that has not convinced the Board of Supervisors' slim pro-airport majority. "From my standpoint, it's going to be an airport," said Charles Smith, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. "The economic forces behind it are too great. The only question is when." The Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative could make that question difficult to answer. The initiative would require two-thirds of county voters to approve of a new or expanded airport, a new or expanded jail, or a hazardous waste landfill. Initiative backers provided plenty of signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot. However, a collection of business groups has sued to block the measure from the ballot. Airport backers argue that only county supervisors, not county voters, can decide the location of major facilities such as airports. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs has scheduled a hearing for November 19. Passage of the Safe and Health Communities initiative would "sound the death knell for an airport," said Supervisor Tom Wilson, an airport opponent whose district includes both El Toro and John Wayne airport. He supports the initiative. "I don't think the elections that went by (in 1994 and 1996) really tell the whole story," said Wilson. "The public, whether they voted last time or not, today is becoming more and more educated as to reuse of that property. And with that education comes a more sophisticated voter." Wilson contended he and Supervisor Todd Spitzer, the board's other airport opponent, are shut out of airport planning discussions. "Communications are not what we would like them to be. I believe the airport minority is not privy to information given to the majority," Wilson charged. But Board Chairman Smith said he was "not too sympathetic to their concerns." He said staff members have intentionally kept all supervisors out of the loop of daily activity because planning information given to supervisors becomes public and airport opponents immediately seize on it. Such suspicion on either side reflects the current atmosphere in Orange County. "There is just no dialogue," said Tom Edwards, chairman of the El Toro Airport Citizens Advisory Commission. Contacts: Tom Wilson, Orange County supervisor, (714) 834-3550. Charles Smith, Orange County supervisor, (714) 834-3110. Tom Edwards, El Toro Airport Citizens Advisory Committee chairman, (714) 871-1132. Dana Smith, Orange County LAFCO executive officer, (714) 834-2556.