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Airport Combatants Turn to Washington

Reuse: The next steps in the transition to civilian use must be taken by the Navy and federal agencies. Both sides have hired lobbyists.

July 03, 1999|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This much is known: The Marines have closed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station after 56 years. But it's anyone's guess when the base, earmarked for an airport, will actually be converted to full civilian use.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Three years ago, Orange County officials signed a cheery proclamation pledging that the base would be deeded to the county by January 1999 for a new commercial airport. They figured cargo carriers would begin interim freight flights from El Toro as early as today.

But those optimistic plans for acquiring the property are 18 to 24 months behind schedule, a victim of ardent South County opposition and plodding state and federal bureaucracies. Interim cargo flights now won't begin until the middle of next year, at the earliest.

Both the Navy and the county have yet to complete extensive environmental impact reports, which are expected to be challenged by aggressive airport foes. A routine decision about who should police the base is mired before a state commission. A timetable for turning over the property to the county isn't set yet.

Despite the hurdles, airport supporters are convinced the airport will be built, if not as quickly as they had hoped.

Time is running out for foes to change the inertia set in motion in 1994 when voters countywide approved an airport at the base and designated the pro-airport Board of Supervisors as the deciding voice.

Airport foes have a "window of opportunity" to stop the county's plans through Washington before the Navy signs what is called a record of decision to dispose of the base, said Peter Hersch, assistant to Irvine's city manager.

Even the fate of the interim cargo flights rests in Washington, where the Navy must sign a critical lease giving the county control of the airfield. The Navy is waiting for environmental clearance before it signs a lease.

All this means that the focus of attention now shifts to Washington, where the next phase of critical decisions will be made.

It's no surprise that county supervisors recently voted to hire a Washington lobbying firm to handle El Toro issues in the coming months. A coalition of South County cities opposed to the airport recently hired a Washington lawyer to lobby the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Our Washington strategy is to [persuade officials] to look at what's wrong with an airport at El Toro," Hersch said.

Other interested parties will step up lobbying as well. They include Citizens for Jobs and the Economy, launched in 1994 by millionaire businessman George Argyros.

"I anticipate we'll be actively engaged in Washington, D.C., and use the political access we have to expedite the process," said Bruce Nestande, chairman of the Argyros group.

*

The airport stall doesn't mean that weeds will be growing elsewhere on the 4,700-acre base. On Sunday, the county will open the 18-hole golf course and the 150-stall horse stables to the public for the first time, under an agreement hastily approved last month with the Navy. The agreement also allows for continued use of the officer's club, an indoor pool and recreational vehicle storage.

"We wanted to be sure that residents could take advantage of this terrific windfall as soon as possible," said Courtney Wiercioch, manager of the county's El Toro master development program.

Windfall is how the county perceives the base. It has asked the federal government to provide the land free of charge for use as a future airport. Officials hope to open an international airport in 2005 to handle 7 million passengers a year initially and 28.8 million by 2020.

Airport opponents, including two of the five supervisors, want a non-aviation reuse of the base instead. They hope to persuade the Navy to deed the property to the county with no strings attached, and then persuade local voters to pass a law requiring a two-thirds vote for any new or expanded airport, large jail or hazardous-waste landfill.

The initiative, titled Safe and Healthy Communities Act, is being challenged in court as unconstitutional by Newport Beach and other airport supporters, including Nestande. So far, no hearing has been scheduled on the lawsuit. Organizers hope to qualify the measure for the March ballot.

In the coming 12 months, the Navy expected to complete the hefty environmental study, required by federal law, before disposing of the base. The county is expected to finish its own environmental review, with a draft expected in September and a final version in December.

Once a vote is taken on the study, other government bureaucracies will weigh in on the airport issue. The FAA, for instance, will decide which routes should be used by landing and departing aircraft and the state Air Resources Board will determine how much air pollution can be allowed at the airport.

Airport supporters, though, aren't worried.

"I predict that sometime in the next few months, some political leadership in the South County is going to step forward and say, 'We still oppose an airport, but if there's going to be one, we want to be involved in the process,' " Nestande said.

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