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After 7 Years, El Toro's Future Is Still in Doubt

Reuse: No one can say with certainty what will happen if voters approve a ballot initiative to abandon airport planning and create a large park instead.


Even after spending seven years and $50 million, Orange County isn't close to settling the question of what to do with the closed El Toro Marine base. And a March ballot initiative asking voters to halt planning for an airport and create a large park and nature preserve instead may only muddy the issue further.

"If Measure W passes, we will have to start the reuse planning process all over again," Gary Simon, director of the county's El Toro program office, told county supervisors recently. "It's back to square one."

That's assuming the county would still want the land.

Supervisor Jim Silva, one of the board's pro-airport majority, has warned that he's inclined to walk away from the base if the initiative passes. Environmental contamination, he said, could be too expensive to clean swiftly and completely to build anything other than an airport.

"The county is going to have to make the decision whether to keep the property or turn it back over to the Navy" after March 5, Silva said.

The implications of the election have triggered a flurry of meetings from Santa Ana to Washington as government officials grapple with the prospect that seven years of airport planning could be overturned. Neither side in the airport fight can say with certainty what would happen if the measure passes.

Airport foes, however, downplay the delays that would occur by changing El Toro's blueprints. The current studies already include a park at El Toro, they said, since the county has been planning to develop park areas around three sides of the base, with the airport in the middle.

"The Navy will quickly adjust if this initiative passes," said Paul Eckles, executive director of the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, a coalition of southern Orange County cities opposed to an airport. "They can read the polls too. So what do they do on March 6? They will try to find the most direct path they can to unload the property with some legitimate entity."

It's expected that the base will be declared surplus this spring, meaning that the Navy will have to dispose of it. The county has applied to become the new owner, with the Federal Aviation Administration as its sponsor. If the proposed use changes, a new sponsor would have to be found, most likely the National Park Service.

The Navy could turn over the base with restrictions, including, under current plans, limiting certain acreage for aviation. If the land were turned over for an airport and it ultimately wasn't built, the property would revert to the Navy. Other provisions say that if the land is transferred for one use but is used for another, the new owner accepts all liability for the property.

Once the Navy declares the property surplus, negotiations begin for conveying the land. Under federal law, the Navy must pay for the cleanup, though the base can be handed over before that happens. Cleanup plans are based on how much money is authorized by Congress; there is no timetable for completion.

For seven years, the county and federal government have examined environmental issues surrounding redevelopment of the base. Those analyses are contained in three core documents required by law. So far, the reviews have focused on an airport as the county's preferred use; none have contemplated ripping up the runways for a park.

"You clearly have to go back to the beginning," said Bruce Nestande, a former state legislator and county supervisor who chairs Citizens for Jobs and the Economy, which has promoted an airport at El Toro since 1994.

The environmental analysis for a park is vastly different from that required for an airport, Nestande said. For example, key areas of the base haven't been identified for cleanup--including the runways--because the intent is to continue using the land for an airport.

"The Navy is not going to turn over the property on March 6 for a park," Nestande said.

Irvine already has declared its desire to assume responsibility for El Toro. City officials, led by Mayor Larry Agran, drafted a development plan for the park that includes a central lake, museum, sports fields, a university campus and other development.

Earlier this month, Irvine voted to begin yet another environmental review needed before it can apply to annex the property to become part of the city. The Navy so far has supported the county's control of the land.

Other steps will need to be taken if the base's use should change. The Board of Supervisors currently is the only entity in control of the base's fate. Handing that authority to Irvine--or any other entity--would require approval by the Navy, which also would have to approve the annexation.

In another twist, if Irvine should take control of the land, it would not be bound by Measure W: The initiative ties the hands of only the county on the base's redevelopment. Irvine officials, however, have pledged to stick to the park plan.

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