Airport watchdogs and residents are raising questions in Newport Beach about just what kind of agreement Orange County officials could enter into with whichever companies they select to lease land and provide aviation services at John Wayne Airport.

After a host of aviation companies submitted proposals to the county, Newport Beach City Council members are set Tuesday night to vote on which ones they will recommend to become operators at the airport to deliver services to hundreds of aircraft — from large private jets to small propeller planes to helicopters — that don’t operate out of the commercial airline terminals.

It’s a decision that impacts Newport Beach residents under the aircrafts’ flight paths, but will ultimately be made by the county Board of Supervisors Aug. 11.

Community members and leaders have objected to any agreements that would result in more noisy jets flying over the city or allow larger private jet expansions to push out smaller “mom-and-pop” operators at the airport. 

Responding to public outcry in June 2019, county supervisors — led by Michelle Steel — amended their original, controversial plans to scrap smaller aircraft spaces to make way for larger private jets, and instead approved conditions that any bidding companies would keep “the same mix” of small and large aircraft operators.

Under those new conditions, the companies would limit “medium and large general aviation aircraft” to 25.6 acres of the airport land, and keep 34.6 acres for small aircraft, according to a city staff report.

Yet during a Monday Newport Beach airport subcommittee meeting, concerns were raised by members like Sue Dvorak who pointed out the companies through a legal “glitch” might be bound to the county’s original environmental impact report that didn’t include Steel’s amended plan.

“Therefore they will have the legal right to kick out the small planes in favor of the large jets if they so choose to do so,” said Dvorak, who’s also a member of the Citizens Against Airport Noise & Pollution group. 

That legal issue, Dvorak said, is “a huge area that I think needs to be addressed.”  

She recommended the committee and City Council ask the supervisors “to find a way to immediately codify their commitment — that’s the ‘Steel Amendment’ — that will … ensure its survival in the lease terms, regardless of changes in political leadership in airport or county administration going forward.”

Reached for comment late Monday night, county spokeswoman Molly Nicholson deferred to airport officials on Dvorak’s concerns.

The Newport Beach airport subcommittee in a 7-5 vote approved recommendations to the City Council that say two of the bidding companies — ACI Jet and Clay Lacy Aviation — most align with the city’s wishes for limited noise and flyovers, and maintain a balance between small and large jets, among other conditions.

John Wayne Airport.

Part of the committee’s suggestions — responding to Dvorak’s concerns — were to specifically voice support for any ground lease agreements between the county and bidding companies that upheld the acreage requirements for balancing small and large jets. 

Yet Dvorak and other committee members were still a “No” vote on the recommendations, citing their opposition to any companies constructing a new general aviation facility, which city officials have said would service international passengers and could make the airport more appealing to corporate jet owners and operators and possibly lead to more flights over Newport Beach. 

The advisements approved by a majority of committee members discouraged the construction of a general aviation facility but included support for ACI Jet winning one of the contracts, which in its proposal didn’t rule out the possibility of constructing such a facility.

Committee member and Councilwoman Diane Dixon, a “Yes” vote on the recommendations, said “I don’t want to give tacit approval to a general aviation facility, but if the powers greater than ourselves demand a general aviation facility be on JWA, we support only the tightest operation hour arrangements.”

The committee’s recommendations for the selection of the contractors, jet space and general aviation facility will be presented to council members Tuesday night, who in turn will make their recommendations to the county.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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