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U.S. Won't Block Sale of El Toro

Foes of L.A. airport plan hail the decision by federal agencies.

July 23, 2003|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said Tuesday that he has no plans to block the sale of the former El Toro Marine base to developers.

Opponents of a Los Angeles proposal to build an airport on part of the 4,700-acre base in Orange County called it the most serious blow yet to the city's plan.

"The Department of Transportation, including the Federal Aviation Administration, does not intend to intercede in the El Toro reuse process," Mineta wrote in a letter to Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), who opposes the airport and whose district includes the former base.

"The Department of the Navy is responsible for the disposition of its bases, including El Toro ... and DOT was not and is not now in a position to make a contrary decision," Mineta wrote.

The letter, released by Cox, came in response to a June 19 letter from Cox asking Mineta for a "clear statement" of the transportation department's intentions regarding El Toro.

Those intentions became clouded in recent months after Los Angeles officials suggested that the former base, which closed in July 1999, be preserved as an airport to bolster Los Angeles International Airport which, they said, cannot be expanded much further to handle the demand for Southern California air travel.

Orange County voters last year approved a measure that zoned the base for parks, sports fields and other non-airport uses. The Navy announced shortly thereafter that it would auction the land. Irvine is trying to annex the base to oversee its redevelopment, which would include homes, retail and commercial space.

However, Los Angeles officials angered many Orange County residents last month by asking Mineta to transfer 2,300 acres of base land from the Navy to the Department of Transportation.

The proposal would allow the government to lease it to Los Angeles for operation as that city's fifth airport, along with LAX, Ontario International, Palmdale and Van Nuys.

Late Tuesday, no one at Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn's office had seen the letter, spokeswoman Julie Wong said, but the mayor "continues to believe that El Toro needs to be part of a regional transportation solution."

County and city officials in Orange County, on the other hand, were pleased.

"Hopefully that will put some of the fears that folks have in South County to rest," said Tom Wilson, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, referring to the region where the base is located.

Mike Ward said he and other Irvine council members were having dinner before their Tuesday night meeting when they were handed copies of Mineta's letter.

"As a council, we would like to thank Secretary Mineta for put- ting this to bed," he said. "We think this means there will be no airport at El Toro, and that Los Angeles, if it wants to solve its airport problems, should do so at airports it already owns."

Though council members feel confident that Mineta's position will be the last word, Ward said, "we're not going to put our guard down

There is a remote scenario under which Los Angeles' plan could be advanced, if key congressional leaders can pressure transportation officials to change their stance.

Doing so, however, would cross Cox, who has pledged to fight the plan.

*

Times staff writers Stuart Pfeiffer and Jennifer Oldham contributed to this report.

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