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No on L.A.'s Plan Makes El Toro Airport Unlikely

Using the former O.C. base for aviation would require federal defiance of local voters.

June 22, 2003|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

The Navy's opposition to a proposal by Los Angeles to lease part of the former El Toro Marine base for an airport further tilts an already uphill climb for airport supporters.

The Navy's rejection means the proposal now teeters on a single, tenuous possibility: that federal transportation officials, after 30 years of watching airport projects across the country killed by opposition from neighbors, would reverse a long-standing policy of letting local areas determine whether airports are built or expanded.

The chances are slim.

Changing decades of federal policy on airport expansion would take a commitment of cosmic proportions, said Don Segner, a former associate administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration who lives in Laguna Beach.

"Someone from the White House would have to put their foot down," Segner said. "You'd really have to rock the boat .... It seems they like to keep things running smoothly."

Federal agencies need a "regulatory purpose" to intervene in local affairs such as land use, said Phillip Kolczynski, a former FAA attorney in Santa Ana.

"That's a policy question that the secretary of Transportation and the administrator of the FAA would have to sit down with the White House to decide if they wanted to take such an unusual step," he said. "It's a political decision, not a legal one."

Los Angeles officials have begun publicly suggesting in recent months that the former Marine base, which closed in July 1999, should be preserved as an airport. Los Angeles International Airport cannot be expanded much further, they said, and cannot handle the burgeoning demand for air travel to Southern California.

In a nonpublic proposal this month, Los Angeles officials asked Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta to seek the transfer of 2,300 acres of base land from the Navy to the Transportation Department. The government could then lease the land to Los Angeles World Airports to operate as its fifth facility, along with LAX, Ontario International, Palmdale and Van Nuys.

The proposal enraged many Orange County residents, particularly those living near the 4,700-acre base. Last year, county voters approved Measure W, which removed airport zoning on the base in favor of parkland, sports fields and other uses. The Navy announced shortly thereafter that it would sell the base land at public auction.

Los Angeles officials acknowledged that their idea was dead if the fate of the base remained with those living closest to it.

It is "vitally important that the federal government consider the regional implications of the disposition of the El Toro base," states a resolution to be considered Tuesday by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

"If enacted, this proposal would ensure that regional air traffic demand is accommodated regionally," says the resolution, offered by Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Don Knabe. A similar resolution was introduced in the Legislature by Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles).

"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," Matt Middlebrook, a spokesman for Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, said last week.

There are two scenarios in which Los Angeles' proposal might stay alive, and both would require federal intervention. The first is that the Department of Transportation decides to request the land despite the Navy's objection. So far, Mineta has said he will refer the Los Angeles proposal to the Navy for review.

The second is that key congressional leaders pressure transportation officials to ask for base property for an airport. Doing so would cross Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), whose district includes El Toro, and who has fought for base property to be sold to the highest bidder. He has pledged to fight Los Angeles' idea in Washington.

Lobbyists for Los Angeles have stressed that El Toro is a national asset that operated as an airfield for 56 years. They have attempted to poke holes in the Navy's twin goals for the base: using sale proceeds to pay for environmental cleanup and quickly unloading the property in anticipation of another round of base closures in 2005.

Neither is guaranteed, city officials have stressed.

About 30% of the El Toro property -- including 900 acres of runways -- hasn't been cleared for sale yet because of lingering concerns about soil contamination by state and federal environmental regulators. In April, regulators asked Navy officials to further investigate or "provide more rationale" for why they declared clean areas that had been pegged as possibly contaminated.

There could be other delays: Navy attorneys are discussing a possible settlement with pro-airport forces who challenged the Navy's environmental survey of the base. A federal judge has ordered that the settlement, which requires the Navy to do a new air-quality study, must be presented at a public court hearing.

Another lawsuit by pro-airport forces is expected against Irvine's environmental analysis of its development plans for the base. The Navy is selling the property under new zoning approved by Irvine that allows residential, retail and commercial development, as well as other uses that would effectively boost potential bid prices.

Irvine's zoning will take effect once the city annexes the property. A hearing on the annexation is expected in October.

Anti-airport lobbyists, meanwhile, have rushed back to work, arguing that federal intervention in El Toro is unnecessary and improper. Next week, the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority will authorize a new contract with its Washington law firm to fight Los Angeles' efforts.

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