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L.A. and O.C. Rev Up Fight Over El Toro

An airport plan could get help in Sacramento. But Orange County will ask the feds to quash it.

June 10, 2003|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Political pressure intensified Monday around an effort by the city of Los Angeles to take over the former El Toro Marine base as the city's fifth airport, with a resolution of support readied for introduction in Sacramento to add state backing.

Washington officials who could make it happen, however, have yet to even acknowledge the proposal. And the Orange County Board of Supervisors is expected today to officially ask federal officials to reject the idea. County voters last year ruled out an airport at the now-closed base and instead backed a plan for development centered on a large park.

The resolution by state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) calls on the Navy and the Department of Transportation to preserve a "national aviation asset" at El Toro -- a military air base for 56 years -- by approving the offer by Los Angeles to lease the base from the federal government.

If Orange County had been willing to stick with earlier plans to build an airport, intervention by the state wouldn't be necessary, Murray said Monday. With air travel demand in Southern California expected to double in coming decades, and Los Angeles International Airport already overburdened, the issue takes on regional importance, he said. "We'd all like our airports to be parks," Murray said.

The resolution will be introduced soon with several sponsors, he said; a similar resolution is expected to be heard in the Assembly.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote today to approve a strongly worded letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta opposing the last-ditch effort by Los Angeles, which comes as developers are preparing to bid on pieces of the base. The board "will not tolerate any attempt by the city of Los Angeles to overturn a local land-use decision made by the voters of Orange County and endorsed by its political leadership," a draft of the letter said.

The opposing maneuvers came as Los Angeles began the task of selling its scenario for the base to federal transportation officials in Washington. No face-to-face meetings have yet been scheduled.

The prospect of reviving plans for an airport at El Toro was analyzed in a 37-page memorandum signed by Los Angeles Airport Commission President Ted Stein and Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards and shared with a U.S. transportation undersecretary in April. The memo was returned to city officials.

A Transportation Department spokesman said Monday that there is no proposal before the agency upon which to comment. A spokeswoman for the Navy said its plans haven't changed to sell El Toro land to the highest bidder through a public auction this year.

Los Angeles officials acknowledged last week that they want the Navy to transfer at least 2,300 acres of the 4,700-acre former base to the Transportation Department, which would lease the property back to the city of Los Angeles for an airport. Orange County supervisors spent nearly $60 million planning an airport there, from 1994 until 2002, when local voters rezoned the base for parks, sports fields, museums and other non-airport development.

The Los Angeles proposal doesn't say what would happen to the other 1,400 acres that the Navy plans to sell as part of an auction of 3,700 acres of El Toro land. About 1,000 acres has already been transferred to the Federal Aviation Administration. It will be maintained as wildlife habitat by the Department of the Interior.

Though there is precedence for a late transfer of military property to another federal agency, such a move is rare. The process of disposing of closed military bases gives preference to local communities in deciding how surplus property is redeveloped, consistent with zoning laws in the area. If the property were to stay in federal hands, however, it wouldn't be subject to local zoning control.

To preserve the property as an airport, the Transportation Department would have to petition the Navy to issue a supplemental "record of decision" declaring 2,300 acres of El Toro as excess property for civilian airport development.

The current record of decision for El Toro contemplated an airport, consistent with two previous countywide votes, but concluded that such a plan was overruled by Measure W, the countywide ballot measure that passed in 2002.


Times staff writer Jennifer Oldham contributed to this report.

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