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O.C. Supervisors Vote to Pull Out of El Toro Panel

November 16, 1994|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Orange County's hard-won compromise for planning the future of the El Toro Marine base unraveled Tuesday, leaving in doubt not only the property's fate but who would determine it and how.

Seeking to accommodate voters who a week ago narrowly endorsed a commercial airport at the site, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to withdraw by year's end from the agency that had been planning the development of the Marine base.

The agency was the result of a compromise forged by county officials and the cities of Lake Forest and Irvine after months of bitter feuding that split Orange County largely between airport advocates in the north and opponents in the south.

When agreement was reached on the planning agency late last year, many Orange County politicians expressed relief that the future of the air base could be settled in an expeditious and orderly fashion. The future of the 4,700-acre base is considered critical to Orange County's economy as well as the quality of life in neighboring communities.

Elections a week ago, however, have thrown the entire process into turmoil and threaten to reignite the nasty debate that immediately followed the Pentagon's decision last year to close El Toro. Orange County voters supported a commercial airport when they backed Measure A by a margin of 51.1% to 48.9%, according to the most recent count.

The board chose not to wait for results from the registrar of voters' office, which today is tallying the last of about 48,000 absentee ballots from the nip-and-tuck Measure A contest, where the airport currently leads by 15,103 votes.

"The fact is, there was a vote by the people of Orange County," Supervisor Roger R. Stanton explained after the meeting, "and I don't think it's appropriate for the Board of Supervisors to be second-guessing the electorate."

But the supervisors' decision does not assure construction of an airport. Although the action Tuesday appears to represent a signal by supervisors that they're following voters' orders, they are still evaluating various alternatives to planning the base's future.

"We are going to study our options to see what we have to do to follow requirements of Measure A," Stanton said. "That could mean we assume full decision-making authority over the process or do that in addition to a setting up of some kind of structure that may retain part of the (existing) process."

Measure A mandates the building of an airport at the base, while the county planning agency--the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority--has been considering an airport along with other options, including a university, a theme park and an industrial site.

If the supervisors do withdraw from the authority, they still must decide how to proceed with a planning process for the base that will satisfy the Pentagon. To be acceptable to the federal government, the planning process must study other options as well.

In addition, the Pentagon also ordered that the cities of Lake Forest and Irvine be included in the planning process because both communities are directly affected by any development at the base.

Measure A requires the county to build a civilian airport on 2,000 acres of the Marine base and develop the remaining 2,700 acres in a way that is compatible with an airport. The initiative neither requires the dismantling of the planning agency, nor does it mention Lake Forest's and Irvine's involvement in the planning process. The nine-member county planning agency consists of five members from the Board of Supervisors along with four from these two South County cities.

The board's action means the county has until Dec. 31 to withdraw from the planning authority.

Chairman Thomas F. Riley and other supervisors said the deadline allows plenty of time to change that decision if, for example, the absentee ballots alter the result.

But Supervisor Harriett M. Weider said that by approving Measure A, "the voters gave back to the (supervisors) the responsibility for land-use (planning) for El Toro."

The supervisors' decision was not unexpected, since County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider had previously recommended the withdrawal. What was surprising was that Riley voted with other supervisors to pull the county out of the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority.

Riley, who represents South County, where pre-election polls showed opposition to the airport was more than 2 to 1, had been the planning authority's key supporter on the board. He also had spoken out against Measure A.

"We have quite a challenge ahead of us. My deep concern is that we not lose the headway we've made in the transition," said Riley, in a reference to the smooth working relationship that the planning authority has had with the Pentagon. The Defense Department has final approval over development plans for the Marine base.

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