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Battle to Spare Miramar Air Station Gets Boost


SAN DIEGO — The fight by San Diego to save Miramar Naval Air Station got a boost Thursday when two members of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission said they were impressed by the arguments in favor of closing El Toro Marine Corps Air Station instead.

Commission members James Courter and Patrick Bowman said they were impressed by the presentations of San Diego area Reps. Randy Cunningham and Duncan Hunter, who argued that Miramar is vital to the military's combat readiness.

The panel met in San Diego on Thursday for its final California hearing on the base closures. It heard testimony from Gov. Pete Wilson, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and others.

Combat readiness is the most important criteria to be used by the seven-member commission in deciding the fates of the bases. The panel must have its recommendations to President Clinton by July 1.

"My mind is not made up, but to be totally candid . . . it appears now from my standpoint that Miramar is an asset and a very good one," said commission Chairman James Courter.

Commission member Peter Bowman, a retired naval officer, said: "I was very favorably impressed."

Cunningham and Hunter, both Republicans, had stressed Miramar's massive open space for expansion, its three runways that accommodate 220,000 landings and takeoffs annually, and its proximity to a carrier training area offshore and maintenance facility at North Island in San Diego.

Cunningham told the commission that El Toro "is maxed-out in operations" because of encroaching development adjacent to the base, which has led to noise complaints and an agreement by the Marine Corps to curtail nighttime flights.

"I would close El Toro," Cunningham told the commission. "In the best of all worlds, I would leave all the fighter aspects at Miramar."

Two Orange County Republicans, Reps. Robert K. Dornan and Christopher Cox, had advocated keeping El Toro open and closing Miramar. Cox's wife, Rebecca, is a member of the commission but has said she will not vote on the fate of bases in her husband's district.

The Miramar-El Toro fight involves two bases that contribute significantly to Southern California's economic health. Miramar has 15,000 civilian and military employees and an annual payroll of $285 million; El Toro and the nearby Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, also slated for possible closure, have 12,470 employees and a $267-million payroll.

"Economics aside, you guys have to be concerned with readiness, and that's the way to keep readiness, to keep the (San Diego) complex together," Hunter told commissioners.

Cox later told reporters that commissioners last week had given encouraging signs to El Toro. "I don't know whether they say that to all the girls or what," he said.

Although Miramar may have moved away from the hit list, the Naval Aviation Depot at North Island, with 3,800 employees and a $178-million payroll, may be more imperiled after Thursday's hearing.

Commissioners noted that the North Island depot is rated by the Pentagon as less valuable than repair depots slated for closure. Capt. Charlie Sapp, the depot's commander, said he did not have figures to dispute that conclusion.

Looking for any possible winning argument, Cunningham said moving Navy facilities out of San Diego could lead to the breakup of marriages.

"We have (Navy) wives who are lawyers and doctors and they say: 'If you want me to go to Lemoore (near Fresno) or Fallon (in Nevada), you're going alone, Charlie,' " Cunningham said. "And they're dead serious."

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