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El Toro Uncertainty Opens Possibilities : * Whether or Not Base Closes, Unified Planning Needed

May 23, 1993

The closure of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station may not be the "open-and-shut" case it seemed when the federal list of base closures was first released. However, the proposed relocation to the Navy's Miramar Air Station in San Diego County hasn't stopped everyone from flying off in the wrong directions. Radar is needed to hone in on the real issues.

The question before the federal Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission is whether to close El Toro, a decision further complicated by a new Navy memorandum that addresses the possibility of retaining the El Toro and Tustin Marine Corps air bases. But whatever the decision is, it will be made according to specific guidelines, based mainly on the base's "military value," and savings.

But before a decision is rendered, various community factions have been acting as if closure were a done deal, and positioning themselves for what happens next. One group from Newport Beach is pushing to close El Toro and turn it into a commercial airport to relieve air noise from flights at John Wayne Airport. The other, from communities around the air station, opposes a new commercial airport there and argues that the county economy will be hurt by the base's closure.

Prematurely, partisans seem to be basing their positions on the second question of where to locate another commercial, regional airport. Even if the base were to close, the "what-to-do-with-the-abandoned-air-base-acreage" game raises its own set of questions.

A new commercial airport is one possible use. But in the regional scheme of things, El Toro may not be the best place for it. Unlike years ago, there is now competition for a new airport. Communities in San Bernardino County are looking at the possibility of airports at the abandoned George and Norton Air Force bases. Questions of airspace requirements, development costs, toxic waste and other environmental factors must be considered.

Does it make economic sense to duplicate the costly new terminal facility only recently built at John Wayne? And if it does, where is the money to come from? Would shifting flights to El Toro to ease air traffic over Newport Beach only transfer the noise complaints from one area to another, rather than resolving the inevitable problem of having flights over residential areas?

Also, the justification for a second airport is based on studies conducted before the recession. Given the area's soft economy and shaky financial structure of many airlines, are the air traffic needs for the future holding up to projections made years ago? Do we really need another regional airport? If so, where? And how big?

And as long as there is speculation about the possible uses of a closed military air base, what about the other residential, commercial and industrial developments envisioned in community master plans? Are they still realistic? This would be a good time to review them.

El Toro's closure may not be at all the foregone conclusion it seemed to be last month when a divided Orange County community presented conflicting positions at the closure commission's public hearing in San Diego.

The latest estimates challenge the anticipated savings, and raise the key question: How much would the Marines' military mission be weakened if Congress doesn't find in its tight budget the estimated $1.27 billion the move would cost?

One thing is certain. The air base's strategic acreage, in military or civilian hands, will play a vital part in the county's economy for generations to come.

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