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El Toro Plan: Park--or No Park?

Irvine and the Navy this week reveal how auction of the closed base will proceed.

July 22, 2002|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The fate of the closed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station should become clearer Tuesday as officials with the Navy and Irvine gather at the base to unveil plans to auction the land for development.

The joint news conference also should reveal how far the city has retreated from its promise of a vast public park at El Toro, which helped sway voters to ground Orange County's plans for an international airport.

Fueled by a multimillion-dollar ad campaign, voters in March approved Measure W, which rezoned the base for parkland, educational uses and some low-level building. A day later, the Navy announced it would sell the property. Irvine took over planning for the base in April, but the city isn't bound by the March vote.

Dan Jung, Irvine's director of strategic planning, had little more to offer last week about what ultimately might become of El Toro other than what the city has said all along: Trust us.

"We think [the land-use plan] is consistent with Measure W and the Navy's desire to sell the base," he said. "I think [people] will be pleased."

Since April, the city has shared little about what might happen at the 4,700-acre base. About 1,000 acres will stay in federal hands as a wildlife sanctuary.

Discussions have been held behind closed doors. Representatives from a coalition of South County cities that fought the airport weren't invited, nor were county officials--although the base remains under county control.

Supervisor Tom Wilson, whose district encompasses South County, said he asked for a preview of Irvine's plan but got nothing. "It's disappointing they don't want to share with anyone," Wilson said. "It's not for lack of asking. We'll have to give them the benefit of the doubt that they're truly working in the spirit of Measure W."

Irvine's public face for the last two years has been its Great Park plan: an ambitious blueprint for sports fields, rolling hills, vast meadows, a central lake and a western branch of the Smithsonian. The city spent $8.5 million developing and promoting the Great Park, according to city invoices--$5.7 million of which went to consultants who sent maps and mailers to households across Orange County before the vote.

It's unclear how much parkland will remain. Tuesday's announcement will include proposed zoning for up to six parcels to be auctioned through the General Services Agency, Jung said. He declined to say what the zoning will be. Navy officials have repeatedly said that they will not give any land to the city for parks.

Longtime government activist Shirley Grindle of Orange, who opposed the planned airport, said Irvine officials apparently decided what can be built at the closed base although the city hasn't annexed the property or completed a required environmental review.

"I'm wondering why the residents of Irvine aren't challenging this process, which in the long run will determine land uses for a chunk of property that will affect not only them but people in surrounding communities," she said.

"Are we going to have to face the fact that Irvine may have pulled a ruse on the public by making one deal with voters and another behind closed doors with the Navy? Maybe people in Irvine will start to care what happens [at El Toro] when they start getting all the traffic. They may have won the battle but lost the war."

Several other airport opponents said that although a large urban park may never be built, neither will the airport.

Irvine's current posture toward El Toro is rooted in the Navy's unexpected sale announcement in March. That obliterated the city's hopes of getting the base free of charge--as its many mailers had suggested. The city began trying to salvage what it could of its promise for public lands.

Irvine now intends to offer density bonuses if developers turn over some land for parks and pay a share of building and maintenance costs.

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