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State Sets Aside $200,000 So Irvine Can Lay Groundwork for 'Great Park'

Recreation: The city stands to get the money if March 5 initiative passes. El Toro airport advocates say they aren't worried.

January 06, 2002|TINA BORGATTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Great Park initiative won't come before Orange County voters for another two months, but the state has already set aside a $200,000 grant to help Irvine with planning it.

The money would come from the state's Natural Resources Infrastructure Fund. But the city would have to return the money if the initiative, listed as Measure W on the ballot, failed March 5, said Steven Capps, a spokesman for the state Department of Parks and Recreation, which would issue the grant.

The Orange County Central Park and Nature Preserve Initiative would replace earlier voter-approved and county-backed plans for a commercial airport at the 4,700-acre former base with a large urban park and other development. As envisioned by Irvine officials--who hope to annex the property--the project would rival Central Park in New York, Balboa Park in San Diego and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

Much of south Orange County opposes the airport and has rallied around the proposed park as a more fitting and environmentally friendly use of the property. Recent polls have shown that voter support countywide is waning for the airport design.

"It's significant that we would receive money to work on planning something that we don't have the legal right to go forward with," said Irvine Councilman Chris Mears.

"What it suggests is that Sacramento doesn't have to read tea leaves to figure out what's going to happen in March: Measure W will pass overwhelmingly; Irvine will press forward with our annexation of the property; and we will continue to push forward with planning and developing the park."

Airport supporters, however, say they aren't worried.

The Great Park "isn't real at this point," said Dave Ellis, a consultant with the Airport Working Group, which backs an airport at the former base. He also takes issue with the idea that money for the proposed park would come from a state fund. "I thought we weren't going to be using any taxpayer dollars to fund the Great Park," he said.

Bruce Nestande, chairman of the pro-airport Citizens for Jobs and the Economy, said he is disturbed that the state would set aside money for a park that hasn't even been approved yet.

The $200,000 grant would be used for "advancing the city's planning activities associated with the proposed Orange County Great Park," according to a city report. That includes environmental studies and design costs.

But it's unlikely that the city will see the money before the election, Capps said. The City Council will first have to vote to accept the grant, which it plans to do Tuesday, and file paperwork with the state, including a detailed description of the park plan. Then the state will review all the information before releasing the money, Capps said.

Irvine officials say the Great Park would be self-sufficient, with funding coming from state and federal grants and an estimated $25 million in annual revenue from existing housing, commercial and agricultural leases.

Critics of the plan dispute that and point to a study suggesting that the county would probably spend about $1 million annually on property maintenance during the first 18 years.

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