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Rival Groups on El Toro Plan Get Ultimatum


SANTA ANA — The Defense Department is suspending Orange County's application for a grant to fund planning for the conversion of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, and has told South County cities that their application could face the same fate unless they stop feuding over control of the base, officials said Wednesday.

"We have that application by the county on hold," Capt. Dave Larson of the department's Office of Economic Adjustment told city officials attending a meeting of the Orange County Regional Airport Authority formed by three North County cities.

Larson said the county's application is not considered "valid" at this point because it does not represent a countywide consensus.

"It is not approved, it is not disapproved. It's in process, waiting for this consensus," Larson added. "If we had another application from South County cities, we would say the same thing to them."

Larson's comments--the latest in a series of warnings by federal officials that Orange County must unite under one planning group or risk losing about $500,000 in federal aid--also were made earlier Wednesday during a private meeting with a six-city South County coalition that is considering creating an El Toro agency to compete with the county plan.

A full three months after the decision to close the base, the interests competing for planning authority for base conversion could not be in more disarray.

No local government agency--not the county of Orange, not the cities near the base, nor other cities wielding significant political clout--has been able to agree on so much as the structure of a committee that would guide future planning for the 4,700-acre site.

On one front, county officials are failing to persuade South County cities to attend an organizational meeting Tuesday of their task force, which they had hoped would take the lead in El Toro planning. Having requested that RSVPs be returned Wednesday, the county was letting that deadline slide as most of its courted guests, the South County cities, were pledging not to attend.

In South County, officials are hoping to emerge as the "consensus" group the Defense Department is seeking and plans to release this week plans for an intergovernmental agency that would include the county's 31 cities and the county government, if it chooses to attend.

And in North County, where a three-city coalition has formed the Orange County Regional Airport Authority because it was ignored in the county's plan, officials are now wondering whether they will ever be included.

Anxious to recruit allies for its plan, county staffers, under the direction of Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, will resume today private negotiations with South County leaders in hopes they can narrow the gulf between both sides that has widened in recent weeks.

"This issue has done more to sadden me than any other in my career," said Riley, who will chair the county's planning task force. "I'm taking this personally. I've worked very well with the South County cities, and even helped them to become cities. Why should they think that my interests in South County are contrary to theirs?

"It is not my style to give up," Riley said, adding, "I'm still saying prayers that reasonable people will resolve this problem."

South County leaders said privately that they would consider delaying the scheduled Friday release of their rival plan if the county agrees to share with them the final decision-making authority on the base redevelopment plan.

But Riley and other county officials continue to refuse to share that power, claiming the county has absolute land-use authority over all but 300 acres of the base.

County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider acknowledged that defense officials informed the county that up to $300,000 in initial planning grants would not be forthcoming until a consensus among local governments was reached.

Nevertheless, Schneider said the county would continue with its plan--with or without the coalition of South County cities--even if it meant having the county pick up the initial organization costs.

"I have told the Office of Economic Adjustment that my recommendation to the Board of Supervisors will be to proceed with current plans, regardless (of not receiving federal grants). We can't drag the South County cities to the table and we can't just sit by and let this opportunity pass," Schneider said.

By holding up the county's grant application, Schneider said "the federal bureaucracy hasn't gotten the message from President Clinton that everything should be done to make sure base conversions are done expeditiously."

The federal hold on the county's grant application took county supervisors by surprise, however, prompting calls for both sides to reach some agreement.

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