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6 South County Cities Plan New El Toro Agency


SANTA ANA — The mayors of six south Orange County cities have notified the federal government that they will not join the county's advisory panel studying future uses of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, deepening their rift with the Board of Supervisors.

Instead, the mayors stated in an Aug. 24 letter to the Department of Defense that they plan to create a new agency open to all 31 Orange County cities and to the county government, if it chooses to join them.

The mayors endorsing the letter were from Irvine, which has 300 acres of the base inside its city limits, Lake Forest, Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel and Mission Viejo. Collectively, they represent a population of about 360,000.

Despite a three-way split between the county, South County cities and North County cities over control of the Marine base, there were growing signs Monday that South and North County cities could agree, in general, on the makeup of an intergovernmental agency that would decide how to redevelop the 4,700-acre site.

While South County cities have opposed turning the base into a regional airport and North County cities have traditionally favored an airport there, any agreement by both sides to jointly study the future use of the base would greatly dilute the county's claims before the Defense Department as the lead planning agency.

The federal government has stated that it will not provide grants for base conversion planning to competing groups, and that any redevelopment plan should have the cooperation of cities closest to the base, which is scheduled to close in four to six years.

Meanwhile, county officials said Monday that they had not seen the cities' letter to the Defense Department. They added that it would hurt a smooth transition on base conversion.

"I'm sorry South County cities have decided to go out on their own," County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider said. "This is not in the best interest of all the players in this whole thing, but I cannot control what they do."

Schneider said, however, that he was confident that the county would become the ultimate authority for base planning.

"I can't imagine the DOD recognizing anybody in the process that does not have land-use authority," he said.

Kenneth Bruner, an aide to Supervisor Thomas F. Riley who is chairman of the county's proposed task force, added: "The DOD is obliged to give technical support and advice to any one who asks for it. . . . I haven't seen the letter, so I cannot comment on what it says."

Hoping to still salvage its 21-member advisory task force, the county has invited city officials to an organizational meeting next month intended to help reconcile the lingering differences.

South County cities closest to the base object to the county's plan because they want to share with the county the final decision-making authority. But supervisors said they should have the final say since most of the land is in an unincorporated area of the county.

The letter to the Defense Department's Office of Economic Adjustment from the South County mayors does not hold out hope for compromise.

"We regret to inform you that we will not participate with the County of Orange in their reuse (committee) since it does not provide for a meaningful shared reuse authority between the County Board of Supervisors and locally elected officials," the letter states.

In explaining their intention to go forward with their own intergovernmental agency, the South County mayors said they had "made numerous attempts to negotiate a compromise" with county officials, but "they were unresponsive to these attempts, citing their sole land-use authority."

North County cities, meanwhile, felt the county ignored them altogether and recently formed their own planning group called the Orange County Regional Airport Authority.

During the weekend, the airport authority's interim chairman, Garden Grove Councilman Mark Leyes, offered a compromise plan similar to what South County is developing.

The North County proposal, in fact, was refined after receiving input from South County officials and may be a signal that both sides are closer to a working relationship than what had been publicly displayed in recent weeks.

The North County compromise takes "airport" out of the agency's name, makes no predetermination on whether a regional airport should replace the base, and would include all Orange County cities and the county government. It also would give the South County cities closest to the base a weighted vote in the decision making, with those cities having a greater share of the financial burden as well as any economic benefits that might come to all cities from future redevelopment.

Leyes and Stanton Councilman Harry Dotson said that if South County's plan--expected to be ready in two weeks--follows the same guidelines, then it does not matter to them which faction gets the credit for creating the planning group.

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