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No Quick Fix in Issue of Base Closures : El Toro referendum has raised more questions than it has answered

November 11, 1994

California's confident growth after World War II was sustained in part by a vast military presence. During the recent recession, one sure sign of the need for economic restructuring was the challenge that planned base closures posed to the resourcefulness of communities.

The early debate over the future of the sprawling El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Orange County demonstrates that there are no short cuts for affected communities between the economic stability of the past and the uncertain choices concerning the future. The air station, one of seven California bases targeted in 1993, is scheduled to close by 1999.

Orange County voters have just given very narrow approval to a developer-inspired initiative to mandate a new commercial airport at the 4,700-acre site. But the countywide referendum, properly derided by opponents as ballot-box planning, has raised more questions than it has answered. Even as proponents were relishing whatever victory might be read in such a thin expression of community intent, the federal government, which owns the base, was saying that the local vote was all but irrelevant.

The Pentagon said it intended, as always, to deal only with the county planning agency set up to explore possible uses for the base and that it did not consider itself bound in any way by the vote. It was an opinion likely to carry weight, in light of the fact that the county initiative dealt with rezoning of federal land. County supervisors already had been advised by their legal counsel that the planning agency they created to recommend uses doesn't have to pay any attention to this initiative.

So with litigation from opponents of an airport also likely, the base's future has not been resolved by an impatient rush to the voting booth. Is this a slap in the face to the notion of local control? Hardly. Wisely, the federal government's procedures for turning bases over for civilian use are tuned to a better frequency of community feedback. They favor discussion over expensive mailers put out by developers wishing to oversimplify things.

Here's something Washington is doing right. It wants to be sure that a plan for the future of a base has addressed all the options and reflects real community consensus.

There is a place for the initiative process, but not as a preemptive strike on complicated land-use judgments. Let airports be studied along with whatever other good ideas may be out there for the El Toro Air Station. The hard truth is that there is no easy route for communities facing base closures, and the lesson from this experience is that it's a good thing there isn't.

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