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Clinton Halts Order to Transfer Helicopters

Military: Move from El Toro, Tustin to Miramar is on hold while Pentagon reviews alternatives.

June 11, 1996|H.G. REZA and TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

President Clinton has ordered a temporary halt to the transfer of helicopters from Orange County Marine bases to the Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego.

Clinton asked the Defense Department to study alternative sites for the 112 helicopters, which are scheduled to be moved to Miramar by 1998, said Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista), who accompanied the president Monday to San Diego and announced the order.

The order was apparently in response to homeowner complaints that the noisy choppers will damage the quality of life in the pricey neighborhoods surrounding Miramar, which will become a Marine base in October.

Opponents favor moving the aircraft to March Air Force Base in Riverside instead.

Maj. Margaret Kuhn, spokeswoman for the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, said Monday evening that Marine officials have not been notified that the move is on hold.

"We have not heard anything that has come down from the Department of Defense," she said. "Until we do, we will continue to execute the direction we've been given." None of the helicopters has been moved yet.

Marine officials said a temporary halt raises other issues: What will happen to the funds budgeted for moving the helicopters and crews from the El Toro and Tustin Marine Corps bases to Miramar, and what will happen to money earmarked for construction to accommodate the choppers?

One Marine official said the plan to house helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft at Miramar was intended as a cost-saving measure. The official wondered whether the same savings could be achieved by housing the aircraft at two bases.

"This decision carries a lot of ramifications that have to be looked at very closely," said the official.

Filner made the surprise announcement as several hundred neighborhood activists rallied outside San Diego City Hall, just a dozen blocks from where Clinton had given a speech only moments earlier. The homeowners cheered and waved homemade signs saying "No Helicopters," "It Only Takes One Crash" and "Don't Ruin Our Neighborhoods."

Miramar Naval Air Station has long been home to F-14 Tomcats, but the helicopter routes would affect neighborhoods that have never experienced noise from the base. Residents have complained to elected officials from City Hall to Washington, sent a petition to the White House and threatened legal action.

Under Clinton's order, Pentagon planners will assess the cost of sending the helicopters to other bases, including Riverside.

Filner discussed the issue last week with Navy Secretary John Dalton and then with Clinton after the president arrived Sunday night for a whirlwind visit to San Diego. Many officials, including San Diego Mayor Susan Golding and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), had asked that the Pentagon rethink the helicopter move to Miramar.

Homeowners have complained that the military has not adequately studied the cost of sending the helicopters to March, which has been downgraded to a reserve base by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

Officials in Riverside, which has been hard hit by military down-scaling, have mounted a campaign to persuade the Marine Corps to send the helicopters to March.

The final decision on the transfer rests with Secretary of Defense William J. Perry. His decision had been expected within weeks, but Clinton's order will delay that indefinitely. Perry still could conclude that Miramar is the best place for the helicopters.

The Tustin base is scheduled to close next year, and the El Toro base by 1999.

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