Newport Beach residents and small plane owners succeeded Tuesday in getting county supervisors to step back from controversial plans to expand private jet spaces at John Wayne Airport.
The raucous four-hour showdown featured yelling from the audience, which the supervisors didn’t stop; warnings of fighting supervisors’ future election ambitions if they don’t back down on the jet expansion; and criticism that supervisors were answering their campaign donors in backing corporate jet expansion, which the supervisors didn’t dispute.
Supervisors initially were eager to approve the project Tuesday, with most supporting a version that would remove 137 existing parking spots for small propeller planes to make room for adding space for 21 private jets to be based at the airport.
But after facing anger from Newport residents, a majority showed interest in capping private jets at their current number of 65 and the board agreed to wait two more weeks to take the issue up again on May 21.
Critics, many of whom live under the airport’s flight path, packed the supervisors’ chambers and an overflow room to express concerns about additional jet noise over their homes, while smaller planes owners opposed being pushed out for corporate jets. The mayors of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa presented a petition against the county’s plan they said had gathered 1,500 signatures.
“The city of Newport Beach does not believe that we have to provide the absolute ultimate in facility convenience to everybody who has a private jet aircraft. That is not a burden that is appropriate to place on the residents of Orange County,” Newport Beach Mayor Diane Dixon told supervisors.
None of the 40-plus public commenters spoke in favor of adding more jets.
County supervisors often tell people to be quiet if they shout from the audience. But on Tuesday, they did not stop Newport residents from yelling from the audience or speaking at the podium longer than the 2 minute limit they set for the item.
When Doug Chaffee, the only Democrat on the Board of Supervisors, made a motion to approve the plan to replace small planes with private jets, a woman in the audience yelled “Unbelievable! Unconscionable!”
The supervisors did not explain why they wanted to add more corporate jets at the airport, which prompted residents to suggest money is playing a role.
“You serve us. And we’re asking for full disclosure and transparency on what is driving…this position,” said Ron Weinstein, president of the Dover Shores homeowners’ association in Newport Beach.
“Let me be blunt. If it is the almighty dollar, I can assure you that many people in this room would be glad to write you a check to make up the difference today,” he added, prompting applause from the audience.
Supervisor Andrew Do took issue with Weinstein saying the supervisors had taken action on the proposed project. But Do did not dispute Weinstein’s suggestion that supervisors have taken money from people interested in adding private jets at the airport, nor that it influenced their decision.
“With all due respect, it appears that you have been bought and paid for,” said Maxine Maly of Newport Beach.
“We pay an incredible amount of money to live in this county. Money talks. We provide a lot of money for this county to operate,” said Patricia Janssen, who lives on Balboa Island in Newport Beach.
“A few thousand dollars in your campaign cannot begin to offset the power of our communities, homeowner’s groups, lobby groups, PACs, to influence your future as elected supervisors, congressmen,” or any other public office, said Lee Pearl, vice president of the Balboa Island Improvement Association.
The proposed project would overhaul the airport’s facilities for general aviation – everything from corporate jets to helicopters to small propeller planes – by adding new hangars, updating roads, and creating a Homeland Security screening facility. About 500 general aviation aircraft are currently based at John Wayne Airport, including space for about 65 private jets.
Supporters say the new proposed upgrades are long overdue, and are needed to bring the facility up to Federal Aviation Administration standards.
But the plans have generated a wave of backlash from Newport Beach residents and city officials, who hired attorneys and consultants to challenge the county’s environmental analysis.
The supervisors’ proposed project would “increase the number of corporate and private jets that depart JWA, resulting in potentially negative impacts on communities surrounding the airport,” according to an analysis by the city of Newport Beach.
One of the main beneficiaries of expanding corporate jets may be ACI Jet, which has a county lease to oversee general aviation services at the airport and is a major donor in supervisor and congressional elections. Last year, ACI Jet revealed renderings for new hangars it planned to build at John Wayne Airport, an apparent part of the project now before supervisors.
ACI Jet ranked fifth out of six in a county bidding process, but county supervisors awarded it the lucrative general aviation management contract in 2017, without publicly explaining their decision.
The move came on the heels of the company giving the supervisors twice as much in campaign donations as the incumbent vendor.
The incumbent, Signature Flight Support, later filed a federal complaint alleging the supervisors had a “bias towards its campaign donors,” citing more than $23,000 in contributions to supervisors from ACI’s supporters. County officials declined to comment at the time. The Federal Aviation Administration ultimately dismissed the complaint, saying supervisors were acting within their authority.
ACI Jet’s lobbyist is former county Supervisor Bill Steiner. The other general aviation management contractor at the airport, Atlantic Aviation, hired as its lobbyists Curt Pringle, the former Anaheim mayory, and Roger Faubel, a longtime water board member and county lobbyist.
Another private jet company at the airport, Clay Lacy Aviation, hired as its lobbyist Jeff Corless, a former election campaign consultant to current Supervisor Lisa Bartlett who recently drew scrutiny over his contract with the county toll roads agency.
The airport project has drawn intense interest from nearby residents, with more than 350 people attending a meeting last week where the county’s Airport Commission debated the project – and deadlocked on which version to recommend.
Under the supervisors’ usual practice, known as “district prerogative,” Supervisor Michelle Steel would have the most influence over county decisions at John Wayne Airport, because it’s in her district.
The unofficial “honor code” of district prerogative is an unwritten rule among generations of supervisors in which each supervisor is given deference – and even veto power – over county projects and events within their district.
Steel announced last week she’s running for Congress in an effort to unseat Democrat Rep. Harley Rouda from his coastal 48th District.
In the last election for the seat Steel is seeking, ACI Jet was a major campaign spender. According to federal disclosures, ACI Jet contributed $35,000 to a committee that supported Rohrabacher with billboards, campaign mailers, and phone banking.
Newport residents’ activism over John Wayne Airport previously led to one of the longest supervisor meetings in recent decades. A 1985 decision on expanding the airport went “past midnight,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
As they tried to move forward with a proposal Tuesday, supervisors tried making policy on the fly, with Supervisor Andrew Do proposing changes to the project he scribbled on the back of a piece of paper.
“This is getting really messed up here,” Steel said of attempts to change the project on the fly.
Do advocated capping the number of private jets at 65, the current level, and wanted the supervisors to approve it Tuesday.
The supervisors’ own lawyer, County Counsel Leon Page, warned the county probably couldn’t defend itself in court if supervisors moved forward on Tuesday with what Do proposed, so it would have to wait two weeks.
“I appreciate what you’re trying to accomplish Supervisor Do. But if we want to be able to defend the board’s action today, we need to have findings of fact that support…the board’s decision,” Page said.
Pilots and residents said they want a level playing field and a seat at the table.
“We would just like to ask you, take some time, talk to the businesses around the airport, and let’s all create a plan together,” said Michael Morgan, president of Excel Air and a member of the Southern California Pilots Association.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Jeff Corless represents Atlantic Aviation. He represented Atlantic briefly in 2016 and now represents a different private jet company at John Wayne Airport, Clay Lacy Aviation, according to his county lobbying disclosures.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.