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El Toro's Defining Moment

April 28, 2002

The Navy Department's big decision on El Toro last week was unmistakable in its significance, if bureaucratically turgid in style. The federal government "leaves the selection of the means to achieve redevelopment to the acquiring entity and the local zoning authorities."

The translation: The locals in Orange County will get to plan El Toro in concert with the eventual developers of the park plan. There were some good reasons an aviation option should have been preserved for El Toro, but with that scenario off the table, the thing that has been missing all along is now present. Clarity. Hooray for that.

The Navy did the right thing in agreeing that there was an appropriate local plan to redevelop the base and a legitimate authority on the ground to implement it. At last, the most important land-use question to come before Orange County during its long period of growth and development after World War II was settled. Key players in Orange County and Washington--federal, county and local officials--were lined up.

Irvine had pulled together a plan that shrewdly provided the federal government something it had come to value: cash or the prospect of it in return for relinquishing the base to local control. The city government, long criticized for floating a plan of a Great Park simply as a way to shoot down a commercial airport, essentially rose to the federal government's challenge in recent weeks and showed that it really had been thinking this thing through.

Following the convincing passage of the Measure W park initiative in March, the Navy had said that it simply wanted to unload surplus property but also challenged Orange County to come up with a unified plan. Irvine was able to include enough of a carrot to entice the federal government--the proceeds from a part of the land that would be sold for development--and to appeal for unity to the previously divided county government. With the help of key swing votes, the Board of Supervisors wisely decided not to stand in the way.

There were many potential hitches. The lobbying by Los Angeles-area politicians of federal aviation officials to override the Measure W vote created last-minute confusion. With a regionwide approach apparently killed for good after the passage of the ballot initiative, the Los Angeles officials made a last-ditch effort in recent days to go to Washington over the heads of the Orange County locals.

Until recently, efforts by officials beyond the borders of Orange County to make the case for an airport at El Toro had been more collegial than what we saw in the final hours. There was a case made largely through the powers of persuasion that all must share in the burden for providing new airport capacity.

At some point arguments must give way to reality. Carrying the fight beyond that just creates enemies. El Toro always has been more than a debate about regional aviation needs. It has been a question about how local land use planning has and should be done. The long battle between southern cities and the county government over the makeup of the Local Redevelopment Authority for El Toro was largely about that question.

In the end, the federal government either was going to have to disregard what the locals decided, or keep faith with them. Irvine, meanwhile, positioned itself to do what it has been doing successfully now for more than a generation, namely, carrying out large-scale master planning on the Irvine Ranch.

The southern portion of the base earmarked for sale now can be planned in a manner consistent with the nearby Irvine Spectrum, and in the process, include some housing. Irvine long had lamented that it did not try to annex the base previously, well before the base closing was announced in 1993. Now it has its chance.

And now the county gets a real community plan after a journey of a thousand miles.

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