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The battle over whether small planes will be replaced with larger private jets at John Wayne Airport took a new turn Tuesday, as supervisors declined a series of requests by nearby residents, mayors and small plane owners seeking to preserve the existing mix of aircraft.

County supervisors – led by Michelle Steel, who represents the airport area – originally wanted to 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 Beach residents and small plane pilots, they publicly backed off and supported a plan Steel said would keep “the same mix” of small and large aircraft.

On Tuesday, local residents, elected officials and small plane pilots asked supervisors to build that commitment into the process of picking the companies that will ultimately determine the mix of aircraft hangar sizes. They asked supervisors to ask the lease bidders how they plan to keep the existing ratios of small, medium and large hangars. And they wanted a community member to serve on the panel that evaluates the bids.

“This is a 30-year contract,” said Nancy Alston, a board member of Stop Polluting Our Newport (SPON), speaking during public comments. “We can’t go back and redo it.”

The bidding process “does not contain language that will ensure the existing balance of jets and small propeller driven aircraft is maintained,” states a Sept. 7 letter to supervisors from advocates with SPON, the Airport Working Group and Southern California Pilots Association.

Supervisors rejected the proposals from city officials and advocates as they finalized the bidding process Tuesday. They cited legal advice from county attorneys that preferring certain plane types over others is illegal discrimination under a federal rule known as “economic nondiscrimination.”

“I read that as a strong provision that would prohibit this county or other agencies from preferring, for example, smaller airplanes over larger airplanes; piston aircraft over jet airplanes. The language doesn’t permit that,” said County Counsel Leon Page.

Instead, supervisors said the bidders are now incentivized to keep the same mix of planes in order to win support, the public will be able to see the proposals, and that supervisors can negotiate until they’re happy with the terms.

“They will be listening to what the public said. I would not be surprised if we get a proposal that closely mirrors what the public’s being saying…And that might put them in the No. 1 spot,” said Supervisor Doug Chaffee.

“We do have a chance to then revisit these issues in the future,” said Supervisor Andrew Do.

Newport Beach and Costa Mesa officials disagreed with the county’s legal rationale against asking bidders how they would preserve the same mix of planes. Mayor Diane Dixon of Newport Beach told supervisors her city’s top attorney and outside lawyers found it’s entirely legal to ask bidders how they plan to preserve the existing mix of hangar sizes at the airport.

“At the end of the day we’re not anywhere different than we were before. Talk is cheap,” Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley told Voice of OC in an interview after the meeting.

“I wasn’t happy with [the airport director] and county counsel and airport counsel’s advice. I thought that they didn’t call it the way it is,” said Fred Foursher, founder of the Southern California Pilots Association. “There’s a unanimous [position] between the pilots and the community. We’re on the same page.”

The pilots association, Airport Working Group and SPON sent a letter to supervisors Monday arguing that adding the question to the bidding process would not violate federal regulations. Further, they argued the county was running afoul of the anti-discrimination rule by not making sure the airport will “accommodate small [general aviation] aircraft in the same proportion” as currently exists.

Supervisors also declined other requests from the mayors and residents, including adding a local resident to the bid review panel. County staff said supervisors could legally have a community member serve on the bidding panel, but the airport director said he did not recommend it.

“It’s unfortunate…that they didn’t feel the need to have a community representative,” said Foley, the Costa Mesa mayor. “I think that would have gone a long way in showing good faith in genuinely wanting to address the issue.”

Page, the county’s chief lawyer, said the supervisors themselves are the community representatives.

“Is the question, could the board dictate the membership of the evaluation panel [to include a community member]? Generally yes, I think that could be said. Although I would point out the community representatives are this board,” Page said. “You don’t need other agents to do that for you. You can decide what is in the best interest of this county.”

Foley said she “thought that it was a little bit offensive, frankly, that counsel for the county told them that they don’t need a community rep because they are the community rep,” because the supervisors are not involved in scoring the bids.

Supervisors said they would make the bid documents public once they came in, so residents and others could evaluate the proposals.

“All the residents here…they can review [that] after [the bids come] out, because we removed the part of the confidentiality clause,” Steel said. “So they are gonna look at…proposals and maps and everything…and review it before we vote.”

Steel also said most of the airport land will be devoted to planes with a wingspan of 49 feet or less, which includes several types of jets. She did not cite figures showing how that compares with the current mix of planes.

The bidding process “will not open the door to larger planes,” Steel’s office said in a news release after Tuesday’s meeting.

The statement added the process “will require bidders to present, in detail, the structures and rents they propose. The evaluation panel, the public, and the Board of Supervisors will be able to review all of the proposals and select those that best accomplish the goal of preserving the existing mix of planes on the airport.”

The discussion came as supervisors moved forward Tuesday with issuing bids for the new airport leases, which will shape the future of small planes and jets at the airport for the next 30 to 35 years years.

It’s known as the “fixed-base operator” agreement for general aviation at the airport. The winning bidders will lease airport land and deliver services to hundreds of aircraft – from private jets to small propeller planes to helicopters – that do not operate out of the commercial airline terminals.

Residents and elected officials said they will continue to monitor the process closely, including when the bids come back for the ground leases.

“There’s always going to be an eye on this process,” Foley said. “There’s so many community groups involved and so many resident volunteers that monitor all of this. Plus both cities have staff monitoring it [in] Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. So yeah, we’re going to keep following it.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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