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Davis Signs Bill Forcing Tustin to Give Santa Ana Schools Land

Legislation: A long battle over 100 acres on the former Marine base ends --for now. Mayor says the city will file suit.

July 31, 2001|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Gray Davis late Monday signed a controversial bill ordering Tustin to give 100 acres of the former Tustin Marine base to two Santa Ana school districts.

Davis signed the bill with "great reluctance," according to a statement, because the land dispute should have been settled without state interference.

"I am persuaded that the districts' request for land is not unreasonable," the governor wrote. "These two districts are among the most severely overcrowded in the state."

Davis said he signed the bill with a commitment from its authors, Assemblyman Lou Correa and Sen. Joe Dunn, that they will introduce urgency legislation vacating the bill's requirements if a compromise is reached between Tustin and the school districts. Correa and Dunn are Democrats representing Santa Ana.

Tustin Mayor Tracy Wills Worley said the city has no intention of negotiating further. The city will sue, arguing that the state is interfering in the federal base closure process, she said.

"I'm very disappointed in the governor's decision to sign this flawed and illegal legislation," she said. "This legislation is not going to solve anything."

Correa said he was relieved and grateful to Davis.

"I'm pleased that the governor made the right decision to make education a priority," Correa said. "There are no good guys or bad guys here; there are competing priorities."

If Tustin sues, a court battle could put the big redevelopment project on the former base under a cloud of litigation for years, both sides have said. Legislation: A long battle over 100 acres on the former Marine base ends, but only for now because the loser plans to sue.

Worley blamed lawyers for Santa Ana for pushing the bill over negotiating an agreement.

Dunn said Monday that Santa Ana "is one of the most overcrowded school districts in the state. We're not picking between a Costco and a HomeBase on who gets the best street corner."

At issue is a chunk of prime real estate on the former Tustin Marine Corps Air Station that lies within the Santa Ana Unified and Rancho Santiago community college districts. Tustin wants to sell that land to help pay for conversion of the 1,600-acre former helicopter base into homes and businesses.

In a copy of a letter sent to Davis' office, 18 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus asked President Bush to circumvent Tustin's redevelopment plan. They want Bush to direct the Department of the Navy to deed the land directly the Santa Ana districts. That would get around Tustin's threat to sue the state.

Tustin's development plan calls for giving 100 acres to the South Orange County Community College District and none to Santa Ana schools. Faced with political pressure from the districts and state and federal officeholders, however, the city has offered the Santa Ana districts 37 acres elsewhere on the base. But an environmental consultant warned school officials that the land could be contaminated.

"When the actions of a community of great resources are exercised to exclude completely an impoverished one, particularly in the transfer of federal property, the matter involves a level of discrimination which the federal government must not countenance," stated the letter, signed by Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana) and 17 other House members.

Few involved in the nearly 7-year-old land fight expected--or wanted--the situation to escalate to this point. The legislation on Davis' desk--with a companion bill still in the state Senate that gives priority to schools in base redevelopment plans--was drafted as a hammer to force Tustin to give up some land for schools, Santa Ana officials said. The requirements in the bills would become moot if a deal were signed by all parties.

However, repeated attempts to reach a compromise have failed in the face of unwavering demands from both sides. Attempts were unsuccessful as late as last week to conduct testing of the 37 acres by the state Department of Toxic Substance Control, which determines where schools can be built safely.

The local fight escalated after the Santa Ana districts sought help from Latino legislators from Sacramento to Washington, D.C. Two Latino rights groups then joined the school districts in filing a federal discrimination suit against Tustin. That lawsuit is pending.

Tustin officials, meanwhile, bristle at the accusations of discrimination against the Santa Ana districts. As the federally designated redevelopment agency for the base, the city insisted it has final say over its plan, which was approved by the Department of the Navy in May. Giving 100 acres to Santa Ana districts would destroy the financial foundation of the redevelopment plan, Tustin officials said.

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