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El Toro's Strawberry Fields Get New Leases


Though the future of the former El Toro Marine base is undecided, county supervisors agreed Tuesday to extend agricultural leases that would provide the county $1.7 million in yearly revenue.

The supervisors voted 3 to 2 to allow El Toro Farms (a consortium) and three other growers to continue farming strawberries on about 500 acres through 2005.

The board nearly postponed the decision because Supervisor Jim Silva wanted to delay action for a week or two until the county learns the Navy's plans for El Toro. Last month, voters again rejected the county's airport plans for El Toro, and the Navy subsequently announced it intends to sell all or part of the land.

The board is expected to hear its options on El Toro at next week's meeting. The Navy's decision is expected April 23.

"If the Navy owns the base, I think we should wait a week or so until the Navy makes its decision," Silva said.

But the majority of supervisors was swayed by grower Matt Kawamura, who said he and other growers need to order plants now for planting in September. In addition, board member Tom Wilson, who returned last week from a trip to Washington, D.C., said he spoke to top Navy officials who indicated "they would honor the county's leases."

"They said they wouldn't be bothered by the leases and will honor them even if El Toro is sold by the General Services Administration," Wilson said.

Silva and Cynthia P. Coad voted against the leases. In favor were Wilson, Chuck Smith and Todd Spitzer.

Smith, who accompanied Wilson to Washington, said the county's lease with the growers has a 180-day termination clause. Supervisors extended the termination-notice period to allow growers time to harvest their crops.

"So if we develop El Toro or the Navy sells it, the growers don't have to move until the end of their harvest cycle," he said.

Growers needed to get lease approval in time to order plants and prepare the soil, Kawamura said. Young strawberry plants are sown in September and harvested in the winter through June.

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