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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

El Toro Housing Is Wasted

November 18, 2001

It probably will take many years before a commercial airport, park or whatever finally fills the 4,700 acres that once housed the Marine Corps air base at El Toro. But while the battle over that final use bounces from boardroom to courtroom to polling place, it has been a disgraceful waste of available and sorely needed facilities to allow most of the former base's buildings and homes to sit virtually unused for more than two years.

It appears that inertia is undergoing a welcome change with county supervisors' new enterprising approach seeking tenants to temporarily occupy 40 unused buildings. On Nov. 6, in a rare unanimous vote on an El Toro issue, they approved a 10-year lease with Cal State Fullerton for a satellite campus in the base building that formerly served as Air Wing Headquarters.

The university plans to spend about $1.4 million to renovate the building into classrooms and computer labs for more than 1,300 of its students now crowded into a satellite operation at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. Classes will start at the base next fall and eventually serve about 4,000 students.

The El Toro satellite campus is a welcome addition for South County residents who won't have to make the long trek to Fullerton for some courses not available at closer campuses. And the Cal State campus is a compatible tenant for El Toro far into the future, no matter what its ultimate use is.

The Cal State lease is a good start. But supervisors shouldn't stop there. In addition to those 40 buildings available for temporary leases, there are about 1,100 residences formerly used for Marines and their families.

They, too, have been sitting unused while many people, including the county's teachers, nurses, police officers and firefighters, have to hold down extra jobs and pay a disproportionate amount of their income to rent a home. That's when they can find one. Many others, because of the critical lack of inexpensive housing here, have to live out of the county and jam the freeways in long and costly commutes.

More than a year ago the county board--again unanimously--voted to consider converting the base housing into inexpensive civilian rentals. But even as noncontroversial an issue as the need for more low-and medium-income housing is not safe from the political fight over El Toro between Irvine and the county board.

They both have previously supported such housing, but the El Toro home-use issue is complicated by Irvine's interest in gaining control of the base through annexation, and the procedural and legal machinery involved in that strategy.

The city and county ought to be able to separate the temporary housing issue from their positions on the ultimate use of El Toro. It's unconscionable to keep holding 1,100 inexpensive homes political hostage and unavailable to the families that need them so badly.

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