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County Yields to Irvine on El Toro Land


Walking away from eight years and $54 million worth of planning, Orange County supervisors voted Tuesday to hand the closed El Toro Marine base to the city of Irvine, which wants to turn much of it into parkland.

"It's a significant decision," said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who pushed for the idea. "It was a slim vote, but we said unequivocally that not only is El Toro dead [as an airport] but the Board of Supervisors believes that too."

Armed with the county's support, Irvine officials said they will meet Thursday in Washington to discuss the base's future with the Navy, which still owns it.

"This puts wind in our sails for the trip back to D.C.," Irvine City Councilman Chris Mears said.

Last month Navy officials announced their intent to decide by April 23 whether to sell El Toro and use the proceeds to bolster the defense budget. They could sell all or part of the 4,700-acre base--regardless of Irvine's plan to annex the property.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Cynthia P. Coad, long a supporter of building an airport at El Toro, cast the deciding votes for Irvine to take control of the base land. She did so after pressing for--and being promised--about $2 million from state park bond funds to develop parks in north Orange County, where she is from.

"This is my emotional issue," Coad said of the park money. "The citizens in north county will say, 'This is great; we're going to work together [on the need for more northern parks]. We're going to be hoping Irvine is successful.'"

Coad also was promised up to $800,000 in property tax money from base development to be used for a park trust fund for north Orange County, where parks are scarce. City officials said they intend to divert new property taxes into a redevelopment fund but promised to fulfill Coad's demand for tax money for parks.

"Our intent is to honor this," Mears said.

Under Irvine's plan, about 3,200 acres would go to the city. The Navy would keep 440 acres to sell along the base's southern edge--an area the city said it would rezone for 1,500 homes. Money from the sale of the homes would be sent to the Navy as payment for giving Irvine the bulk of the base.

The remainder of the base, which closed in 1999, already has been set aside by the federal government for a wildlife sanctuary. About 100 acres would stay under county control for various programs and to provide housing for the homeless.

Irvine wants to develop most of the base as parkland and other public uses consistent with last month's countywide vote to replace airport zoning at El Toro with zoning for a large urban park, nature preserve and limited development.

Meanwhile, a delegation of elected officials from Los Angeles and Orange counties arrived Tuesday in Washington to urge federal officials to postpone the Navy's sale decision.

A handful of local leaders met with Federal Aviation Administration officials to lobby for the development of an airport at El Toro to handle Southern California's future air travel needs, said El Segundo Mayor Mike Gordon, who advocates an El Toro airport to relieve pressure to expand Los Angeles International Airport.

Gordon said late Tuesday that he was "very encouraged" by a meeting with FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, who promised to try to push the Navy to postpone its April 23 decision. Several north Orange County cities are backing an alternative airport plan for El Toro and hope to place it before voters in November.

"We were very encouraged and thought the meeting was very constructive," Gordon said from Washington.

The Irvine contingent, including representatives from other supportive south Orange County cities, had hoped to take to Washington the unanimous support of county supervisors. But two supervisors, Jim Silva and Chuck Smith, voted against Irvine's plan, saying it was short on details, including financing.

Paul Eckles, executive director of a nine-city coalition that backs Irvine's plan, said the group will argue that the sale would be quicker--and would produce higher value--under the Irvine plan because of the new housing that would be built. Irvine would not allow the new housing if the base were sold piecemeal by the Navy.

"If the Navy doesn't bite, they'll sell the base," Eckles said. "That's their Plan B."

Irvine City Manager Allison Hart said the city would ask developers to pay for improvements on their portions as well as to shoulder some costs of developing the park. The development plan includes 370 acres for a new campus of Cal State Fullerton, 126 acres for an adjacent research park and 228 acres for university-controlled housing.

The Orange County Fair would take another 300 acres for an expansion. The city also would develop two golf courses, sports fields and 463 acres for wholesale nurseries. A series of streams and wild lands would run through the property and act as wildlife corridors.

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