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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Tustin Park? Not So Fast

City Should Weigh All Options at Former Marine Base

November 23, 2003

Along with lunches, it would seem there is no such thing as a free park. Even with the land given to it by the Navy, Orange County cannot afford a park right now on the old Tustin Marine base, which includes two huge World War II blimp hangars. It can put a fence around the property and wait for better times, or ask the Navy and city of Tustin to consider some new options.

As part of the base closure, the county gets 85 acres and one of the 17-story hangars -- the other is probably too decrepit to keep standing -- for use as a park.

The land is prime in many ways: flat, centrally located and believed to be relatively clean of toxins that can cost a fortune to contain or remove. But developing the roads, parking and other amenities could amount to as much as $13 million.

Even with money from the Proposition 40 park bond, the county is hard-pressed to maintain its existing parks, much less build a new one.

Without a park, the fixable hangar sits useless. Five groups are interested in using it. Four want to turn it into a winter sports arena, including the possibility of skiing and snowboarding on artificial snow right in the middle of Orange County. (Just imagine the air-conditioning bills.) A fifth wants to build a military museum, which might be a fitting end to the hangar's long military history but seems unlikely, given the huge costs of renovating the hangar for public use, mounting a museum and keeping it operating. A county report last year said it would cost $262 million to create the museum and $6 million a year to keep it in business.

The would-be tenants of the hangar understandably don't want to pick up the tab for roads and sewage. They've got a big-enough job to do just making the hangar usable.

One possibility would have the county simply fence off the acreage and wait. New sources of money might become available, and waiting would give the museum backers time to see if they can pull off the fund-raising they envision.

Or the county could simply declare the project undoable, and return to the Navy and Tustin for permission to rethink the land use. Perhaps the county could sell part of the land for development -- as has happened on much of the rest of the Tustin base -- and use the proceeds to finance a park on the remainder.

For now, as tempting as a 12-minute drive to the slopes sounds, the county should not spend significant sums on developing the park.

Better to maintain the existing parks as valuable resources for the public than to spread the money too thin trying to build a new one.

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