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Knabe Moves to Fore Among Opponents of LAX Expansion Plan

Knabe Moves to Fore Among Opponents of LAX Expansion Plan

By AMANDA BRONSTAD

Staff Reporter

James Hahn, mayor of the second-largest city in the country, wants to expand Los Angeles International Airport, the fourth busiest in the nation.

He cajoled, compromised and argued with community groups, city council members and airlines until a scaled-back compromise was finally reached earlier this year.

Too bad. Don Knabe doesn’t like it.

“We’re aware of the importance of LAX to the economy and the region,” he said, “but we also have quality of life issues.”

Knabe, the supervisor from L.A. County’s fourth district, represents a U-shaped region that starts at Marina del Rey, runs past the airport and hugs the coast until it turns northward along the Orange County border. He is also a longtime advocate of spreading the region’s ever-increasing air traffic throughout the area and an outspoken opponent of plans for LAX modernization and expansion.

“Our intent isn’t to blow up the whole thing,” Knabe said. “There are issues that relate to the capping (of passengers) and to the significance of the Manchester Square (check-in) facility. We believe we can move forward on part of the plan and pull those out.”

So despite months of haggling at the city level that led to a sharply reduced version of Hahn’s $9 billion plan, Knabe’s clout was enough to send the whole endeavor into question.

An obscure county commission ruled last month that the LAX Master Plan violated a 1991 land-use plan, negating a planned City Council vote that was expected to approve the compromise by a majority ballot.

Instead, the Council now must reach a harder threshold of 10 votes to override the county’s Airport Land Use Commission and approve the plan later this year.

“Reason and logic have nothing to do with the decision at this point,” said Denny Schneider, vice president of the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion, which opposes the Master Plan. “It’s purely political.”

Knabe bridles at the charge, even coming from an.

“They can call it political if they want,” he said. “It’s by statute. When you have concerns of a project, you use every available tool you have. One is the review process by the ALUC.”

Exercising clout

As the haggling over whether and how to expand LAX played out at the city level, the supervisors have remained silent. But they always loomed in the background as a potential stumbling block.

Each of the five supervisors has a constituency of 2 million people more than that of 10 state governors and has historically wielded some of the greatest political power in the country.

Each supervisor has near-total autonomy over his or her own district and, like the council, will typically defer to their colleagues on matters in individual districts. That deference extends to the five members of the Airport Land Use Commission, each appointed by one of the supervisors.

“For a long time, people just said the only people who count when it comes to airport expansion are eight members of the (15-member) City Council,” said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “Knabe has said we have to worry about other people and make it so it’s more than eight. While he can’t force the residents of El Segundo to have an official role, he can force the airport and those pushing it to have more buy-in by creating a requirement of more than eight votes.”

Knabe balked at the suggestion that he influenced the commission’s decision, saying it voted as an independent group without the influence of any supervisor. The commission, he said, came to its conclusion because it had the same reports and resources available as the supervisors did when they voted against an earlier version of the LAX Master Plan last year.

Knabe said he had “great faith” that his appointee, former El Morada mayor and retired Cerritos College professor Wayne Rew, would “do the right thing.”

“I don’t feel the need to give him direction at all,” Knabe said. “This is a much bigger issue than person-to-person influence.”

Commission members may serve up to two four-year terms and receive a $150 stipend per meeting. The other members of the commission are Patrick Modugno, vice president and chief financial officer of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and former two-term mayor of San Fernando (appointed by Supervisor Michael Antonovich), Harold Helsley (Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky), Esther Valadez (Supervisor Gloria Molina), and Leslie Ballamy (Supervisor Yvonne Burke).

Track record

Knabe, a supervisor since 1996, has been a thorn in the side of LAX expansion for years.

As early as 1998, he sought to include county supervisors in the plans to expand the airport. In March 2001, he revived the on-again, off-again Southern California Regional Airport Authority to promote regional growth among county airport planners. The group shut down less than two years later after several of its members resigned.

Then, in July 2001, Knabe and Antonovich, another expansion opponent, were key players behind a lawsuit the county filed against airport officials to extend the public comment period on the LAX Master Plan.

In 2002, Knabe joined then-Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter and U.S. Reps. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, and Jane Harman, D-Venice, in asking Hahn to update the plan’s environmental studies before moving forward on its approval. He reiterated that request in a motion to the Board of Supervisors in July 2003.

Knabe said the LAX Master Plan, in its current form, might allow LAX to expand beyond 78 million passengers per year, which would raise significant traffic and security questions. He also wants to eliminate from the plan the proposed Manchester Square check-in facility, which heightens those issues.

“We’re concerned about capping passengers at 78 million and Manchester Square,” he said. “Those are the issues of the utmost importance for my colleagues.”

Until now, Knabe’s efforts have proven unsuccessful. But when the approval process came before a county commission, Guerra said, “Knabe had a choice of being complacent or proactive, and he chose the proactive strategy.”

Knabe has become more proactive, according to Schneider, who said the supervisor and his field deputy, Tom Martin, have stepped up phone calls and e-mails to community groups as the plan heads for a City Council vote.

Shannon Murphy, a spokeswoman for the mayor, declined comment on Knabe’s influence on the commission’s decision, saying only that the vote was no surprise. “We anticipated it, especially considering that the basis for the decision was developed back in 1991 and we felt it was unfortunate the county was using a 13-year-old document,” she said.

Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who has forged the compromise airport plan, called the commission’s decision a “judgment call.”

“They were asked to make this decision,” she said. “There was Don Knabe’s office testifying in front of them, Yvonne Burke testifying at the commission, and that was part of public record. Do I think every supervisor called each of their commissioners? I don’t think so. But there were two who were clear on what they wanted the commission to do.”

She said the commission’s decision would likely push back a final approval of the LAX proposal to December.

Whether surprised or not, the mayor and city council members are likely to have a tougher time seeing the modernization plan go through.

“Supervisor Knabe’s support and leadership in this is instrumental in our ability to oppose the plan,” said Mike Gordon, the former El Segundo mayor now running for a state Assembly seat. He is also working with a coalition of 125 groups opposed to the expansion.

“The trekking will get much harder for this plan,” said Gordon. “This is just the start of it.”

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