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When Consensus Is Crucial

April 14, 2002

With an important deadline for the former El Toro base on the calendar this month, it seems that everything but the kitchen sink is getting thrown into the mix of possible uses for the facility.

At times like this, when it feels almost as if the community is starting all over, it's important to remember how much debate has gone before. And most important, the recent countywide ballot initiative, in which a park plan won out over an airport, showed a preference at the end of years of debate for a particular type of redevelopment plan. It at least should have a chance to be evaluated properly before vanishing in the face of some new idea.

But nothing is ever simple at El Toro. The Navy opened the door to a new era of complexity by saying hours after the passage of Measure W last month that it would begin a sale of the base. Suddenly, the development of a large park, or at least one like that envisioned by Measure W proponents, was not so certain. Like it or not, the park idea always has been more serious than critics contend, the product at least in concept of a long process of grass-roots community planning spearheaded by the city of Irvine. What should happen now is that the concept be vetted more fully than it was during a political campaign. As much as the initiative was portrayed as nothing more than a way to shoot down the airport, there was no mistaking its intended alternative, at least in general terms. That was that El Toro eventually be developed as a park, with its attendant educational and cultural trappings.

The question is, will that park idea get a fair chance to be studied and implemented? It may end up costing a bundle, and parts of it may be unrealistic, but it certainly deserves at least a full hearing, just as the airport had its day.

But with April 23 looming, the prospect of a sale stirred a lot of discussion about a fresh interest from developers. The Navy aspires to honor the intent of Measure W, but who knows what will happen if property is transferred out of the federal government's hands? A sale would make things more complicated, especially for a Local Redevelopment Authority that already has been strongly criticized as unrepresentative.

Just whose vision should be implemented, and by whom? The answer under federal base reuse guidelines is the community. But this is more complicated than ever. The good-old days of the 1990s seem almost comforting by comparison. Then at least there was a clear battle line and one galvanizing idea, the proposal for an international airport.

Irvine Mayor Larry Agran is one who has stayed with his vision for the implementation over time of the "Great Park" proposal. But prime real estate in the center of Orange County is getting people thinking and talking again, especially when it now appears headed for the auction block.

One thing is certain: Any commercial alternatives to park development will be daunting. Just for starters, the need for yet more rezoning approval would arise for anyone trying to break faith with or seriously modify the intent of Measure W. This would be followed by some arduous planning hurdles and a host of environmental cleanup questions.

And then there are other possibilities more far afield for El Toro. Recently the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians said it was considering a casino, or even outlet stores and a power plant. The tribe has sought recognition by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which could bolster a claim for federal property.

Sooner or later, the El Toro debate always comes back to community consensus, and orderly local planning and control. In New York, the federal government and the city of New York have recently learned a similar lesson the hard way. They have been trying to figure out what to do with Governors Island, after a dispute between the state and city dating to 1996. Because the locals couldn't agree on how to use the property, New York lost a chance to buy the island for $1.

Consensus really matters in the reuse of federal land, whoever gets the prize. It's why local interested parties need to line up with a unified Local Redevelopment Authority, and work with Irvine to implement a vision that somehow squares with Measure W's intent.

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