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Orange County

El Toro Airport Backers Settle Suit With Navy

The tentative agreement ends an environmental survey dispute and bars further challenges.

November 01, 2003|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

Supporters of a commercial airport at the closed El Toro Marine base have agreed to settle a lawsuit they filed against the U.S. Navy challenging the federal government's plans to sell most of the property to developers.

The settlement, which must be approved by a judge, would bolster plans to redevelop the 4,700-acre base as a massive regional park, with homes and commercial centers instead of as an airport.

The pro-airport groups had challenged the adequacy of the Navy's environmental studies that cleared the way for the land sale.

According to court documents filed Oct. 24 by attorneys for the Department of Defense, the Navy will conduct additional environmental studies on the effect on air quality of removing hundreds of acres of concrete runways at the former airfield.

But the Navy also maintained that its original environmental reports were adequate. The settlement bars any future challenges by the plaintiffs.

The settlement also calls for $270,000 in attorneys fees to be paid to the plaintiffs. Barbara Lichman, a lawyer for the Airport Working Group of Orange County, the lead plaintiff, did not return calls requesting comment.

Navy spokesman Lee Saunders said that "until the settlement is finalized, it would be inappropriate for us to comment."

U.S. District Judge Gary L. Taylor in Santa Ana's federal court is scheduled to consider the settlement terms Monday.

If approved, it will mark yet another milestone in the nearly decade-long redevelopment battle over El Toro, which closed officially in 1999.

Last year, Orange County voters rejected a commercial airport on the site and instead approved Measure W, which called for turning the base into a complex of parks, homes and businesses. Irvine is annexing the land and is the lead agency in the redevelopment. But the plan, named Great Park, has faced legal and political hurdles.

A lawsuit by Caltrans challenging Irvine's traffic analysis of the project was settled last month with the city agreeing to conduct further studies.

Pro-airport groups also challenged Irvine's environmental analysis of the redevelopment project. That suit is pending.

And earlier this year, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn revived the controversy by quietly lobbying federal officials for an airport at El Toro.

But plans for an airport have failed to regain traction and seem to be growing dimmer every day.

The Navy intends to move forward with its land auction next year. About 3,700 acres are scheduled to go on sale to developers, who in turn will deed about 80% of the land for public parkland, sports fields and open space, while building about 3,400 homes and 3 million square feet of office and industrial space on 800 acres. An additional 1,000 acres have been set aside by the government for wildlife habitat.

Irvine will collect developer fees through a nonprofit corporation to fund the public projects. The Local Agency Formation Commission hears the matter Nov. 12.

Irvine Councilman Michael Ward welcomed news of the settlement between the Navy and the pro-airport groups.

"The path we've been on since 1993 [when base closure was announced] is littered with hurdles we've overcome," Ward said. "So let's move on."

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