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Irvine Co.-El Toro Swap Gains : Conversion: Support swells for proposed land deal that would give developer control of base--and opening to build an airport.

August 06, 1994

SANTA ANA — With stunning consensus, environmental and political support swelled Friday for an enormous land swap that would give the Irvine Co. control of El Toro Marines Corp Air Station, amid growing speculation that the developer wants to build a commercial airport there.

Irvine Co. officials pledged, however, that the real estate giant is "absolutely neutral" on whether the base would become a commercial airport under the proposed land exchange that would give the federal government thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive land near the Cleveland National Forest, including the areas of Weir and Gypsum canyons.

The land-exchange idea, first proposed by local environmental groups to the U.S. Department of the Interior months ago as a way to preserve sensitive open space, is rapidly winning favor countywide as a way to spur a planning and development process mired in political controversy.

"I'd always hoped that we could do the best for the county; maybe now I'll get my wish," said Thomas F. Riley, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

Although there seemed to be widespread support Friday for pursuing the land-exchange concept, some cautioned local leaders against moving too fast. Some South County officials, for instance, said they will insist on a voice in any El Toro development--no matter who owns it.

In addition, Interior officials--and the Irvine Co. itself--stressed that they are a long way from an agreement and pointed out that such a pact might take years to clear a series of legal and governmental hurdles.

For more than a year, the Marine base has been at the center of a raging debate over how the 4,700-acre property should be converted to civilian use when it closes by 1999.

And until now, the Irvine Co. has remained silent in the controversy which has literally divided the county, pitting airport proponents in the north against those in South County who are seeking an alternate development plan.

But by Friday, there was general agreement within the business and government communities that a successful land swap with the Interior Department would almost certainly favor the creation of a new commercial airport.

Local developer Buck Johns, who is leading a November ballot measure to win approval for a future airport at the base, said the influential Irvine Co.'s joining the fray could only help his cause.

"You have to stand back and ask what would enhance the value of the property already owned by the Irvine Co. around the airport," Johns said. "The answer to that is an airport."

While acknowledging their interest in the land-exchange idea, Irvine Co. executives said Friday they were "absolutely neutral" on the question of airport development should they gain control of the base.

However, one federal official familiar with the discussions said he believed the Irvine Co. was interested in using the property as a commercial airport.

"I believe that's what they had in mind," the official said. "Every time we started going down that route (talks about a possible airport site), I said, 'Stop. No. That's for somebody else to decide.' "

The Irvine Co. has continued to describe its discussions with the Interior Department as "conceptual," but federal officials confirmed Friday that similar deals have been reached in other parts of the nation where military bases have been scheduled for closure.

"What's gained is long-term conservation for the county and open space for residents in exchange for the development of an area that is already developed," said Jay Ziegler, the spokesman for the Interior Department and one of several federal officials who visited Orange County to look over the base.

If such a deal could be worked out, officials said, all three entities would gain: the Marines could get out of El Toro more quickly; the Irvine Co. would get some valuable Orange County property and the Interior Department would secure another parcel of land it considers crucial to the endangered gnatcatcher's survival near the Cleveland National Forest.

Gary Hunt, Irvine Co. executive vice president of corporate and legal affairs, said the talks have not yet determined how much of the base could be obtained or exactly what parcels the Interior Department would like in exchange.

"All of this has been promoted by the environmental community," he said.

Hunt estimated that such a deal could take two years to complete but cautioned that the company had not made any commitment to a proposal.

"Obviously, there are a lot of environmentally sensitive lands in the north, and if those can be preserved by the government that would be a positive thing," he said.

Connie Spenger, president of Friends of Tecate Cypress, said the environmental group has been working with the Sierra Club, the Tri-County Conservation League, Wilderness Society and other organizations to push the land swap.

Last month, Spenger said, her group sent a letter to the Irvine Co. proposing the swap and spelling out the benefits.

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