Believing that an airport at El Toro still has a pulse, an obscure state commission decided Thursday to continue a 40-year-old buffer zone limiting development around the closed Marine base -- even though voters have rejected plans for a commercial airport and the military says it will never return to the site.
The Airport Land Use Commission voted 6 to 1 to maintain a 14,000-acre noise and crash zone that restricts construction beneath the base's old flight paths. Commissioner Denny Harris cast the only "no" vote.
"I don't feel this is an issue of whether El Toro becomes an airport," said commission Chairman Gerald Bresnahan. "But if it ever becomes an airport, will the surrounding communities be protected?
The vote was in line with recommendations from the commission staff, which concluded that the restrictions should remain because an airport on the former base has not been ruled out. Commission members also contend that the rules should be maintained until the military turns over the property for civilian use, a process that could take several years.
Officials from cities surrounding the base say the old military buffer zone has become an impediment to developing thousands of acres.
City officials say that under state law, local governments can override the commission's actions, but they must assume full liability for noise or property damage if an airport is built at El Toro or the base reactivated. In this case, they say, they must assume liability under what they consider to be an outdated buffer zone.
Builders have been eyeing that land since the base closed in July 1999 as the site for homes and commercial buildings, which would be allowed if the restrictions were lifted or modified.
During the public hearing Thursday, opponents of the buffer zone told the commission that it was highly unlikely that El Toro would ever become a commercial airport or be reopened as a military installation.
In March, voters rejected the county's plan for a commercial airport and rezoned the 4,700-acre base for a large park and other uses. The Navy, which owns the property, says jet fighters will never fly there again. Even the county and the city of Newport Beach, two staunch supporters of converting El Toro into an airport, have halted planning for the project.
"The action defies common sense. The buffer zone remains outdated and is no longer valid for a make-believe commercial airport that is no longer being planned," said Lake Forest Mayor Richard Dixon.
Opponents said the commission should either scrap the restrictions or develop a new buffer zone for a civilian airport -- smaller and less restrictive than for military air bases.
"Procedures have not been followed [for] a civilian airport," said Lake Forest Councilman Peter Herzog. "It is time to move on. The war over El Toro is over."