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Who Will Lead the Way If Air Station Closes? : Airports: County, Newport Beach begin to lock horns over who will control the property and plan for conversion if the air station is shut down.


Even before a final decision has been made on the fate of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Orange County and the city of Newport Beach are beginning to lock horns over who will control the property and the revenue that might come from its possible conversion.

Newport Beach officials have been lobbying other Orange County cities in recent weeks to join a countywide airport authority. The payoff, Newport Beach claims, would be an equal share in the $240 million in annual profits that Newport's consultants say a commercial airport at El Toro could be generating by the year 2010.

"The county should be a part of it, but I don't think the county should have the lion's share," Newport Beach Mayor Clarence J. Turner said in an interview last week. "The county and the state are taking revenues from us and the cities are fighting back."

But the county has no intention of stepping aside, having lined up consultants and organized committees to take the lead in planning how the land will be used in the event of closure.

"This is a significant issue, not only for South County cities, but for the county as a whole," County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider told a group of South County city council members who gathered for an evening meeting last week. "This is an opportunity for the county to get some money; an opportunity for economic benefits."

Offering reassuring words to the South County leaders who oppose the base closure because they fear it will be replaced by a commercial airport, Schneider emphasized that the county's first priority is to keep El Toro open. The county's base conversion planning has been put on hold until a final decision is made this summer, he added.

The county has not taken a position on whether it would support an airport. But at the very least, the Board of Supervisors believes the county should be the lead agency in planning alternative uses for the seven-square-mile base should it be forced to close.

Initially convinced that there was little hope of saving the 50-year-old military installation from a proposed shutdown, county officials said they now believe "the odds have come up considerably," especially in light of a Navy Department memo Thursday revealing that the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission had obliged the Pentagon to analyze other options.

In one alternative now under discussion by Pentagon officials, both El Toro and the Tustin Marine Corps air bases in Orange County could be spared if the Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego is closed instead.

Orange County officials have suggested El Toro can be saved and the Marines from Tustin, which was ordered closed two years ago, could relocate to Camp Pendleton or March Air Force Base, which is scheduled to lose its active-duty personnel under the current realignment plan.

But as the county intensifies its campaign against the closure of El Toro, officials said they are caught in a delicate balancing act--not wanting to jeopardize their anti-closing position on one hand, and on the other needing to be ready to take the lead in converting El Toro to a commercial airport if the shutdown is approved by the federal base commission.

"It's my intention to retain the county as the lead agency," Schneider told the South County leaders. "If we don't, someone else is going to fill that void."

Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, whose South County district includes El Toro, said the air station is part of the county's unincorporated area and therefore should be left under control of the county if shut down.

The supervisor said he was already "annoyed" that Newport Beach let its conversion plans be known to the base closure commission and has not joined the fight to save El Toro.

"We all are interested in providing a solution to air transportation problems down the line, but we have to think about our intentions."

Nevertheless, Newport Beach is pushing ahead. The city is starting its campaign with little support from other Orange County cities, but considerable political backing from businesses, including air cargo carriers that would like to see El Toro converted to a commercial airport.

The coastal community is proposing that the Orange County Cities Airport Authority be expanded to include other Orange County cities and be selected by the federal government as the lead planner for the civilian use of El Toro. In addition to Newport Beach, the airport group includes Anaheim, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Stanton and Yorba Linda.

Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly said he hoped that "turf battles" pitting local cities against the county for control of El Toro could be avoided, although the current differences are not surprising. "Construction of airports are probably the biggest projects governments undertake," Daly said.

Crediting Newport Beach for its leadership on the issue, Daly said Anaheim would maintain its membership in the airport authority and would take further action after a final ruling by the base closure commission.

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