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Navy Says No to L.A.'s El Toro Plan

Affirming that the land sale will proceed, the acting secretary vows to oppose the city's bid to lease the former Marine base for an airport.

June 20, 2003|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

The Navy's acting secretary pledged Thursday to fight a proposal by Los Angeles to lease the former El Toro Marine base for a commercial airport, creating a hefty roadblock to the city's lobbying effort in Washington.

Hansford T. Johnson said the Navy is committed to disposing of most of the base at public auction for a mix of homes, commercial development and parkland, and has no interest in changing its decision.

"The Navy fully intends to proceed with [the] public sale," said Johnson in his first public statement on the Los Angeles proposal.

"Public sale is the quickest means by which the department can divest itself of the property and local governments begin generating tax revenue."

The statement comes two weeks after Los Angeles officials acknowledged wanting the closed Orange County airfield as the city's fifth airport. Mayor James K. Hahn has pledged to cap the size of Los Angeles International Airport and to expand outlying airports to handle more of Southern California's travel demand.

In April, Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards and Ted Stein, president of the Los Angeles Airport Commission, proposed in a 37-page memorandum that Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta belatedly request a transfer of at least 2,300 acres of El Toro from the Navy, which would then be leased to the city.

Los Angeles officials were unmoved Thursday by Johnson's statement. They said they have presented their proposal to the Department of Transportation to preserve El Toro as a national asset. The military airbase operated for 56 years and was closed by the Navy in July 1999.

"We haven't received any indication from the Department of Transportation that they won't consider it," said Matt Middlebrook, a spokesman for Hahn. "We understand this is a longshot, but it's one we feel is worth pursuing until we're told it's not an option for the federal government."

Anti-airport officials in Orange County said Johnson's commitment to fight the airport plan was expected.

"I guess Los Angeles can continue spinning their wheels if they want to," said Meg Waters, spokeswoman for a 10-city anti-airport coalition, "but El Toro's not going to be an airport."

Johnson's opposition could be critical on several levels: Though base-closure law gives federal agencies priority in claiming land that has been declared surplus by the military, Mineta has said he will refer Los Angeles' proposal to the Department of Defense for review. The Defense Department, in turn, routinely defers base closure decisions to the secretaries of each branch, spokesman Glenn Flood said.

As Navy secretary, Johnson also would have to approve a new closure document, called a record of decision, if the land were to be transferred to the Department of Transportation for use as an airport.

The current document, issued last year, prohibits an airport, citing Orange County voters' passage in March 2002 of new zoning for the base that limits redevelopment to parks, sports fields and other public uses.

Late transfers of military land to other federal agencies are allowed by law.

In 2001, about 700 acres of Homestead Air Force Base in Florida was transferred to the Interior Department for mixed-use development after it had been designated for an airport. Interior officials "strongly urged" the Air Force to change its plans for the base after environmentalists argued that airline flights would harm the nearby Everglades National Park.

It was Johnson, acting as the Navy's undersecretary for installations, who announced in April 2002 that the Navy would prepare 3,700 acres of El Toro land for public auction under a zoning plan approved by Irvine. The city is trying to annex the base to oversee its redevelopment for public uses, homes, retail and commercial space -- development added to increase the value of the sale to the Navy.

Johnson's statement said the city's blueprint for El Toro's redevelopment is in "the spirit of Measure W" and that changing course would violate voters' wishes.

About 1,000 acres of the base has been transferred to the Federal Aviation Administration, which is keeping navigational equipment on the property. The Interior Department is managing the land on behalf of the FAA as wildlife habitat.

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