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Irvine's Internal Conflict Over El Toro Use Simmers on Back Burner


IRVINE — The city's ongoing jockeying with the county for a significant role in redevelopment planning for the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station has overshadowed a conflict within Irvine over a more basic issue: What should be done with the base.

The City Council has long opposed converting the 4,700-acre facility into a commercial airport, fearing such a move would create massive traffic, noise and pollution problems.

Many Irvine residents agree with the council's stance, but some business leaders look more favorably on the airport concept, saying it would create needed jobs and give the city's high-tech and biomedical firms a competitive edge.

For the moment, this disagreement has taken a back seat as both business leaders and residents close ranks behind the City Council in its effort to secure a strong voice in charting El Toro's future.

But some officials are looking beyond the conflict with the county and hope to prevent a protracted conflict over one of Irvine's proudest boasts: being a city that offers both a high quality of residential life and a vigorous business climate.

"It's a fine line to walk down," said Council member Christina L. Shea. "I have to balance the economic benefits (of an airport) with the serious impacts on the residents . . . . I'd like to see the best of both worlds."

Converting El Toro into a cargo airport is seen by some surrounding cities like Anaheim and Newport Beach as the most logical and economically beneficial use for the base.

And even Irvine officials have vowed to faithfully consider a wide variety of options--including the airport proposal--when it comes time to draft a redevelopment plan.

"One of the requirements of the Department of Defense is that we evaluate all options," said Councilman Barry J. Hammond. "There has to be an objective look at the (airport) use to see how it will affect the quality of life in the entire community. It needs to be based on facts instead of on emotions."

This prospect pleases some business leaders, said Terry Hartman, president of Irvine Chamber of Commerce. Though the chamber hasn't taken an official position on the airport, Hartman said many members are enthusiastic about the idea and want to hear more about it.

Building a commercial airport located just minutes from the shining corporate towers and sprawling office parks of the Irvine Spectrum and other business districts could benefit existing Irvine firms and create new business opportunities, Hartman said.

"Some business members are quite interested in the possibility," he said. "It gives a competitive advantage to be located near an airport with cargo capability."

Currently, some firms must wait 2 or 3 hours for packages to be moved from Irvine to airports in Long Beach and Ontario for shipping, he said.

Some also see an airport as a powerful magnet for start-up companies--especially if the facility contracts many of its services to private firms.

While the airport proposal has received the most attention, it is just one of several ideas now being discussed by both business and political leaders.

One idea is to convert all or part of the base into a large business complex similar to the Irvine Spectrum. Another suggestion is to turn a portion of the base into an industrial district.

Both developments would benefit from the base's close proximity to the San Diego and Santa Ana freeways as well as two proposed toll roads, Hartman said. "Even without an airport, you would have a tremendous transportation center," he said.

Whatever use is eventually selected, some city officials said they don't necessarily see a conflict between the needs of residents and businesses.

"It's a better business decision to have a reuse that is not going to negatively affect the city," Hammond said. "You want to maintain the high standards of the community."

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