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Governor Gets Bill to Make City Give Districts Base Site

Land use: Tustin has resisted Santa Ana efforts to build unique K-junior college campus on retired Marine post.

July 06, 2001|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The state Senate easily approved legislation Thursday designed to force the city of Tustin to turn over 100 acres at the former Tustin Marine base to two Santa Ana school districts for a unique kindergarten-through-college campus.

The bill by Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) passed on a party-line vote of 21 to 13. It passed the Assembly in April on a 49-27 vote.

Passage of the bill, now headed to Gov. Gray Davis for his signature, raises the stakes in a five-year battle between Tustin and the two districts for a slice of the 1,600-acre base, which closed in July 1999.

It is the second bill addressing the Tustin land fight to pass both houses of the Legislature this year. A companion bill by Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) gives priority to schools over commercial uses in the redevelopment of closed military bases.

Tustin has threatened to sue if the bills are signed by Davis.

City officials claim that they followed federal guidelines for redeveloping closed military bases and that the Legislature's intervention violates federal law. The land, which lies within the school districts' boundaries, is needed for commercial development to pay for improving the base, the city said.

Even if Davis signs the bills, the base land will not be given to Santa Ana without a fight, Tustin City Manager William A. Huston vowed Thursday.

"The only way to settle this is to get this legislation vetoed," he said.

But Correa said the state is merely ensuring that the city follows the best interests of the public in deciding what will be built on federal property that will be turned over to the city. The districts originally were approved for base land in 1994, but the city changed its redevelopment plan in 1996, giving property instead to the South Orange County Community College District.

"Today, the Senate has reaffirmed a commitment that California voters have made over and over again, and that is that children come first, even up against a golf course or commercial development," Correa said.

"The legislation is clearly committed to tackling one of education's biggest challenges--overcrowded schools," Dunn said after the vote.

Both bills have been sent back to their original houses for concurrence on technical amendments and then will be sent to Davis. They passed on party-line votes, with Democrats backing Santa Ana and Republicans backing Tustin, whose interests were championed by veteran Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine).

In May, the city offered to give 22 acres to Santa Ana Unified and 17 acres to Rancho Santiago Community College District for campuses, plus $20 million in cash and a share of future tax revenues--a package the city said was worth $78 million. School district officials balked after a consultant warned that a portion of the new land could be contaminated and unsuitable for school construction.

Tustin council meetings in recent months have been stacked with Santa Ana representatives urging the city to give up the land, part of an intense public-relations push by the school districts. The districts also have taken their fight to Davis: Last week, about 100 parents of Santa Ana students traveled to Sacramento on chartered buses to press Davis to sign the two bills.

Tustin countered with a $250,000 public-relations campaign appealing to residents and voters countywide to back the city. The multicolored mailer arrived at 150,000 households across Orange County last week urging residents to fill out a postcard to Davis asking him to veto the Correa and Dunn bills.

So far, about 3,000 postcards have been returned, said Sara Brown with Goddard Claussen Porter Novelli, the consultant hired by the city to prepare the mailer.

Earlier this year, the districts sued Tustin for its refusal to turn over the land, alleging violation of federal protections against racial discrimination. Officials with both districts--where nine in 10 students are Latino--said there is scant land available elsewhere in Santa Ana to build schools. Currently, about 25,000 students use portable classrooms.

Davis' signing of the bills should send a signal to the Navy that the Santa Ana districts should be given the property without further resistance by Tustin, said Al Mijares, superintendent of Santa Ana Unified.

"It will send a powerful message to have the state Legislature and the governor agree with us," he said, adding that both bills stipulate that the legislation becomes void if a settlement is reached.

Huston said the city will urge Davis to reject the bills and protect the city's redevelopment plan. "We want the governor to understand that this [base] closure affects the entire county," he said.

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