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Navy Pulling the Plug on Airport Plan

April 24, 2002|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Burying any chance of an airport at the closed El Toro Marine base, the Navy said Tuesday that it will sell the sprawling Orange County property for parks and other limited development.

Just what is built will ultimately be the decision of local officials--specifically the city of Irvine, the Navy said. Irvine has petitioned to annex the 4,700-acre base; 424 of those acres are already within city limits.

"This marks the beginning of a tremendous opportunity for the people of Orange County and best meets the mandate of the base closure law to return this property to productive local use," Secretary of the Navy Gordon England said in a statement.

Orange County supervisors reacted to the news by canceling contracts with 15 consultants working on the proposed international airport, except for two advocacy firms that specialize in dealing with the Navy and federal bureaucracy. Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Tom Wilson-both longtime El Toro airport opponents-were the only two of the five-member board who objected to continuing those two contracts.

The announcement ends eight years and $54 million worth of planning by the county for a commercial airport at El Toro, which opened in 1943 and closed in July 1999. Local voters approved airport zoning for the base in 1994 but rescinded that last month through Measure W. The new zoning calls for a park, open space and limited development.

The decision also dashes the hopes of regional planners, who saw a new airport at El Toro as both an economic stimulus and a way to take the pressure off other Southern California airports.

In a letter to Cynthia P. Coad, chairwoman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, H.T. Johnson, the Navy's assistant secretary for installations, said the goal is to move El Toro "into private hands so that it can be placed on the tax rolls for the benefit of the citizens of Orange County and the city of Irvine."

Johnson, who made the final decision on El Toro, will be in Orange County on Thursday to meet with county and Irvine officials on a plan for selling the property. In a letter to Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, who hopes to build a large urban park at the base, Johnson said the Navy wants to agree on a plan that includes city zoning and a development plan by May 31.

The property will be sold through the General Services Administration, which sent appraisers to view the base last month. The Navy will end its El Toro lease with the county on June 30 but will honor several subleases, including those for a golf course, stables, farming and recreational vehicle storage.

The Navy's statement stressed that the Federal Aviation Administration would have no further role in the fate of the base--a blow to elected leaders from Los Angeles and Ontario who flew to Washington last week to ask the FAA to stop the Navy sale.

The Navy announcement was anticlimactic in Orange County, where most local officials saw it as a confirmation of last month's public vote. But there were no guarantees that a sizable park would be built--the centerpiece of Irvine's rezoning campaign to rezone the property--or how much of the land might end up in the hands of Irvine for public use.

Still, South County officials who have fought for years to prevent the airport were jubilant.

"This is the last stake in the heart of the airport," said Irvine Councilman Chris Mears, who met last week in Washington with Johnson and Irvine City Manager Allison Hart. "Irvine will be the master planner of the base in concert with the Navy. Who the land is sold to and how, those are the details to be worked out."

"The Navy has listened to the will of the people of Orange County and come to the right decision for El Toro," said Allan Songstad, chairman of the nine-city El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, which opposed the county's airport plan.

Orange County supervisors reacted to the news by canceling contracts with 15 airport consultants working on the airport, except for two advocacy firms that specialize in dealing with the Navy and federal bureaucracy. Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Tom Wilson objected to continuing those two contracts.

Spitzer, a leading opponent of the county's airport plans, said taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook for any more El Toro expenses. More than $40 million over the years for El Toro planning came from John Wayne Airport, whose funds could be used only toward the new airport.

The Navy's statement didn't mention the possibility of moving the Marine Corps' West Coast boot camp to El Toro--an idea that continued to circulate Tuesday. In a statement, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones said the Navy's decision "allows for a timeline that provides the Marine Corps sufficient time to study future possible land uses for El Toro."

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