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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Civilian Use of Navy Runway Deemed No Longer Feasible

Military: Point Mugu commander tells county leaders the growing base no longer needs the additional revenue.

July 21, 1999|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Citing safety concerns and potential expansion of base activities, Point Mugu naval officials on Tuesday all but killed a long-debated proposal to open its military runway to commercial jets.

Navy officials oppose any joint use of the 11,000-foot landing strip, the commander of the Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station told a panel of county and city officials.

"At this time, the Navy feels this will not be feasible," Capt. Stephen D. Beal told the Point Mugu Regional Airport Authority, a group of local elected leaders that has been pushing for a shared-use agreement.

Beal's announcement effectively scraps a 5-year-old proposal to bring commercial cargo jets and eventually passenger service to the base airfield. However, Beal left the door cracked, suggesting that continued expansion of base operations in coming years may lead to construction of another runway and renewed talks with local officials.

"There may be opportunities in five years or so," Beal said.

County Supervisor Frank Schillo, chairman of the Airport Authority, said he holds little hope that the Navy will ever agree to shared use of the 4,400-acre base. The arrival of additional squadrons in recent years has transformed Mugu from a shrinking base in search of new revenue to a rapidly growing military operation, Schillo noted.

With the Navy's opposition now clear, Schillo said he and other leaders can devote attention to other projects.

"The best thing to do now is put it on the back burner and see what happens down the road," he said.

The Airport Authority converted to inactive status at the conclusion of Tuesday's meeting. The panel will meet just once a year unless talks with the Navy are renewed, panel members decided.

They also agreed to return $70,000 in donations contributed to the Airport Authority several years ago by the county and the cities of Port Hueneme and Oxnard. The trust fund was created to pay expenses associated with the Airport Authority's work and is no longer needed, the panel decided.

Talks with the Navy began with a phone call from Adm. Dana B. McKinney in 1994, Schillo said. Post-Cold War downsizing of the nation's military had left Point Mugu officials uncertain about the base's future, and they were looking for ways to bring in new revenue.

McKinney, a former base commander, suggested that the Navy was interested in sharing its facilities, with certain provisions, Schillo said. Community and business leaders rallied behind the regional airport as a way to create more jobs, promote tourism and stimulate investment in Ventura County.

The Airport Authority was formed in 1996 to bring an agreement to fruition. Schillo and others pushed hard, drawing up a 10-page plan that would allow the Airport Authority to use ramps and other Navy facilities for civilian cargo and overnight mail for 30 years.

They attempted to address Camarillo residents' concerns about noise and pollution by agreeing to limit civil operations to 35 arrivals a day. But the Navy began backing off from the plan when it became clear that its own fortunes were improving.

Four squadrons of high-tech E-2C radar planes have relocated to Point Mugu in the past year, pushing base employment from 8,000 in 1995 to 12,000 today, Beal said. The additional $60-million payroll helps the county's economy and bolsters the base's defense against closure, he said. And there is potential for more growth as other West Coast naval operations become crowded, Beal and others said.

Other obstacles made an agreement impossible, Beal said. An accidental explosion of weapons at Mugu could pose a safety threat to civilian flights, he said. Launch of missiles at the base--one of the Navy's premiere weapons testing centers--could unexpectedly shut down the runway, making it difficult to schedule flights.

Finally, under current law, landing fees collected from commercial carriers using the Navy's runway would not go to Point Mugu, Beal said. Instead, they would go to the U.S. Treasury Department.

Beal, 48, is retiring and will turn over command of the base to Capt. Jim Rainwater on Thursday.

The demise of the regional airport plan was applauded by Camarillo Councilwoman Charlotte Craven. Craven said that in addition to concerns about noise and pollution from 707s and 747s, she believes that creation of a commercial airstrip would have hurt the base's chance for survival.

Mugu was on a list of possible base closures during a round of downsizing in 1995. If it had been running commercial flights, the base-closure panel might have deemed it ripe for conversion to the private sector, Craven said.

"I felt all along that a joint-use airport would be the death of Point Mugu," she said.

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