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Board to Try Again to Keep El Toro Open

May 27, 2000|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a last-ditch effort to save a handful of recreation programs at the former El Toro Marine base, Orange County supervisors will meet Tuesday to cement an agreement they hope will spur the state action that is essential to keeping the base open after July 1.

The Navy has warned county officials that the base will be padlocked unless the State Lands Commission agrees in June to transfer El Toro's police authority from federal marshals to the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

Until this week, it appeared the usually routine transfer would be felled by airport politics--meaning operation of the golf course, horse stables and child-care center, among other programs, was doomed.

But the agreement before supervisors Tuesday could clear the way for the transfer--and not a moment too soon. The Navy said it wants action from the county by Wednesday.

"The board is committed to doing everything we can, within reason, to keep the base open," board Chairman Chuck Smith said.

Smith sent a letter Friday to Kimberly Kesler, the Navy's director of base closure operations, pledging the county's commitment to keep base programs operating.

Transferring police powers for El Toro has been opposed for more than a year by South County cities fighting the county's plans to build a commercial airport there. The cities argued that the transfer was the first step toward building an airport at the base.

On Monday, the coalition cities agreed to withdraw their opposition in exchange for a promise by county officials that no airplanes would land at El Toro for at least five years.

The agreement before supervisors includes that condition but does not specify for how long. Smith has proposed a two-year moratorium; supervisors have said they might consider three or four years.

The final hurdle is the State Lands Commission. Composed of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Controller Kathleen Connell and Tim Gage, director of the state Department of Finance, the commission has yet to set a meeting date for June.

The Orange County agreement represents the latest indication of an uneasy detente between anti- and pro-airport sides in the El Toro fight. Supervisors voted unanimously earlier this month to study both an airport and non-aviation alternative at El Toro, to equal scrutiny.

In his letter to Kesler, Smith said both sides will meet next week to finalize their agreement, with the intent to lobby members of the state commission for an El Toro decision in June. The Navy has said the police transfer must occur before July 1 so a long-term lease can be signed giving the county responsibility for the 4,700-acre base.

Smith aide James Campbell also visited this week with operators of El Toro's recreation programs and distributed a letter urging them to write Bustamante, Connell and Gage, asking for a June hearing.

County officials said they are hopeful supervisors will approve a final agreement Tuesday that will be accepted by the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, which lodged the legal challenge against the state transfer.

Among last-minute changes made this week to accommodate airport foes was changing a clause in the agreement exempting possible flights by U.S. aircraft. The wording was changed to acknowledge emergency military flights. South County officials had protested that broader language could allow future flights by the U.S. Postal Service.

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