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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

County Backs Navy Center Expansion

Military: Campaign encourages California Coastal Commission to drop demand for health study and to support larger radar-test facility.

May 09, 2000|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County officials are aggressively lobbying California Coastal commissioners to end a standoff between the Navy and the commission over the Navy's plans to expand its radar-test facility at Port Hueneme.

The California Coastal Commission's decision to halt the Navy's expansion of its Surface Warfare Engineering Facility could threaten the future of the 15-year-old center, officials said.

Meanwhile, the Navy could move ahead with the expansion even if the commission holds fast to its decision, setting the stage for a possible court battle between the two powerful agencies.

In the hope of avoiding such a confrontation, Ventura County Supervisor Frank Schillo spearheaded a letter-writing campaign, arguing that the naval base is a vital part of the county economy and that opposition to the expanded test center is limited to a small number of vocal neighbors in the Silver Strand neighborhood of Oxnard.

"They're just trying to make the Navy look bad, and it's only because they don't want it there," Schillo said. "They're never going to be satisfied."

The letters were timed to be in the commissioners' hands today, when they are expected to confirm an earlier decision blocking the facility's expansion until the Navy agrees to a civilian-led public health study on the possible hazards of radar used at the test center.

The letters can do little more than express displeasure at this point, since the commission's decision has been made, but Schillo said he is concerned that any weakening of the Navy in Ventura County could mark the Port Hueneme naval base for closure.

"If they lose this facility, it's the beginning of the end," he said.

The Navy applied to the commission, which administers the Coastal Zone Management Act, for permits to install new lasers, microwave beams, satellite transceivers and other equipment. The weapons center would become the largest electronic warfare test center on the West Coast.

An independent panel of scientists that reviewed the proposal concluded in March that although the facility would pose no risk to people or wildlife, precautions are required to ensure safety. Last month, the Navy, under pressure from the commission, agreed to several restrictions, but did not consent to the health survey.

"I'm mystified [by their decision]," said Lee Quaintance, a director of the Beacon Foundation, the Oxnard group challenging the Navy's plan. "It's such a reasonable request that I can't understand why they aborted the process over it."

Quaintance and other residents who oppose the expansion say they are concerned that warship radar and high-energy radio waves beamed during tests of weapons systems could cause burns, cataracts or brain damage.

The Navy could choose to ignore the Coastal Commission's decision, at which point the commission could sue the Navy, said Mark Delaplaine, federal consistency supervisor for the commission.

Navy officials declined to comment Monday on whether they would go ahead with plans to expand the facility, and have not yet contacted the Coastal Commission about whether they will relent.

"We don't know what they'll do at this point," Delaplaine said. "It's fair to say we're optimistic they may still agree with our conditions."

Local business leaders and politicians say the Navy has been a good neighbor and is important because it is the county's largest employer.

The Ventura County Economic Development Assn. voted last week to object to the Coastal Commission, and sent a letter arguing that the Navy's continued wrangling with the commission is a waste of time and taxpayer money.

"I think the Navy's just flat tired and worn out," said Penny Boehm, director of legislative affairs for the economic development association. "That's the new warfare in my mind. Wear them out. Wear them down."

The Navy has done all it could reasonably be expected to do up to this point, others said.

"This thing has been going on for five years," said Supervisor John Flynn, whose district encompasses the naval base. "The more [the Navy] gives in, the more these few people want. [The Navy brass] is drawing the line."

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