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Talks Extended on El Toro Land Exchange : Conversion: Federal official says it's unclear how passage of airport initiative will affect proposed swap. Interior Dept. and Irvine Co. will take until April to discuss other ideas for the land.

November 19, 1994|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The U. S. Interior Department, in a letter to the crippled El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, said that it needs four more months to conclude land-swap negotiations that could give the Irvine Co. a large part of the base and set aside 1,100 acres for an ecological preserve.

The letter, signed by department special counsel Joseph L. Sax and dated the day before Orange County voters approved Measure A, said the department foresaw negotiations with the Irvine Co. continuing until at least April 1, because of the "magnitude and complexity of the proposed transaction."

Originally, both sides were supposed to provide details of the proposed exchange to the planning authority by Dec. 1.

"The land-exchange concept involves a number of issues that require further discussion between (Interior Department) and the Irvine Co," the letter said.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday, however, to withdraw from the planning authority, which was forged with two South County cities earlier this year to plan the development of the base.

The supervisors acted after voters on Nov. 8 approved Measure A, which obliges the county to build a commercial airport on 2,000 acres of the facility when the Marines leave by 1999. The county's withdrawal from the planning agency left in doubt not only the fate of the base but who will plan its development.


On Friday, Jay Ziegler, Interior Department spokesman in Washington, said he was aware of the initiative's passage and that the supervisors had voted to withdraw from the planning authority by Dec. 31.

He said it was still unclear how the passage of Measure A might impact the proposed land exchange, but added that "we respect the role of the local reuse authority, even if it's not the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority."

The initiative calls for a 13-member El Toro Airport Citizens Advisory Commission to plan for the airport and "airport-compatible" development around it.

"We don't know what the effect will be. But both the Irvine Co. and Interior Department have made it clear that neither side has an interest in managing an airport," said Ziegler.

Last September, Irvine Co. Executive Vice President Gary Hunt said the giant land developer was not interested in the base property earmarked for an airport. On Friday, it was still unclear which areas of the base are being eyed by Irvine Co. officials.

A secretary said that Hunt was out of town and unavailable for comment. Other Irvine Co. officials who were asked to comment on the letter and land swap were also unavailable for comment.

Even if an agreement is reached on a land swap, the Irvine Co. would be able to develop, at most, only about one-third of the 4,700-acre base. In addition to the 2,000 acres set aside by the initiative for an airport, Ziegler said the Interior Department will go ahead with previously announced plans to preserve about 1,100 acres of the base as a gnatcatcher preserve.

"We view these as two distinct issues. Our first priority is the 1,100 acres on the base identified by biologists as a critical piece of the county's reserve system. This is independent of whether or not we can reach a land exchange with the Irvine Co.," said Ziegler.

He said that federal officials still do not know how many of the remaining 1,600 developable acres the Irvine Co. is interested in.

"In simple terms, we felt they had a strong interest in everything except the airport. But I'm not pretending to speak for the company," Ziegler said.

The three-page letter also said that both the Interior Department and Irvine Co. "are in the process of targeting more precisely the lands that will be the subject of the exchange."

Under the proposed exchange, the Irvine Co. would get an undetermined number of acres at the Marine base in exchange for property owned by the company near the Cleveland National Forest around Gypsum, Wier and Fremont canyons.


Ziegler said the size of Irvine Co. land received by the Interior Department will depend on the appraised value of the El Toro property deeded to the company. Much of the property that the Interior Department wants to acquire is zoned for development, but federal authorities want to preserve it as open space.

There have been two other proposed land swaps involving the El Toro base. In October, the Laguna Hills Audubon Society proposed turning over most of the Marine base to the Irvine Co. in exchange for environmentally sensitive property in Laguna Canyon subject to development.

A few days later, Laguna Hills city officials said they had begun preliminary discussions with federal officials about swapping the Marine base to the Irvine Co. for a different section of Laguna Canyon. Both proposals were made to the Interior Department.

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