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El Toro 'Airport' Snarls Projects

Orange County land-use commission still rejects plans for tracts near the former base until its sale is final, which could take a year or more.

November 30, 2003|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

It was business as usual as an Orange County land-use commission recently turned down plans for an Irvine housing tract, saying it would be too close to an airport.

Some of the houses, commissioners reasoned, could end up so close to the runways that they would be in a potential crash zone. And the noise of jets overhead made the area unsuitable for homes.

There is only one problem: The airport doesn't exist.

"I think it's silly that four years after the Marines left El Toro [Marine Corps Air Station] we are still discussing some nonexistent noise," Leonard Kranser, a commissioner who voted against the majority, told his colleagues during the meeting. "This is a terrible waste of time and waste of money."

Although the decade-long battle over building an international airport at El Toro seems all but decided, a little-known state-mandated panel is rankling cities and developers by rejecting projects near the former airfield.

The Navy has announced that it will sell the closed base to developers come spring, and Irvine, which recently won approval to annex the 4,700-acre facility, says it plans to tear up the idle runways as soon as possible to make way for parks, homes and businesses.

But the Orange County Airport Land Use Commission, which oversees developments around local airports, says that until the Navy sells the land, the panel must proceed as if a commercial airport is still possible.

"Until the title [to the land] is transferred, it is not a dead issue," said Seal Beach Mayor Patty Campbell, a commission member. "Anything can happen."

The commission's position has brought uncertainty to developers who hope to turn hundreds of acres around El Toro into residential developments. They were precluded by the commission from doing that when the base was in full swing and military jets were still flying.

When the Marines pulled out in 1999, the commission decided to keep the restrictions in place in case El Toro became a commercial airport.

"It is ludicrous," said Daniel Jung, Irvine's director of strategic programs who helped plan El Toro's redevelopment. "Everyone knows the airport issue is dead."

Last year, county voters passed Measure W, which rejected plans for a commercial airport and rezoned the base for a large park and other uses. It capped a pingpong battle of anti- and pro-airport measures that began as soon as the Navy announced El Toro's closure in 1993.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors then voted to stop planning for a commercial airport and to support Irvine's annexation of the property. Irvine's plan allows about three times more development than originally laid out by Measure W, but still maintains 84% of the land as open space and parks.

The federal government could still halt the land sale and revive talks of a commercial airport, but Los Angeles airport officials failed to gain support in Washington after making such a request this year.

"We are the only vestige of government that thinks" El Toro can still be an airport, said Commissioner Denny Harris, who frequently clashes with the majority. "On most issues, this panel has a common-sense approach -- except on this one."

Campbell, the Seal Beach mayor, says common sense calls for putting an airport at El Toro.

Increasing demand for air travel in the region will mean worsening traffic on the San Diego Freeway as Orange County residents drive to airports in Los Angeles County, she said.

"People in south [Orange] County say, 'I don't mind driving to LAX or Long Beach.' Well, I mind them driving through my city," Campbell said. "Why should my residents lose their homes" to widen freeways?

In July, the commission turned down a residential project in the Irvine Spectrum because it was in El Toro's jet noise path. In October, the panel approved another Irvine project but required that the homes be soundproofed -- something the developer already planned to do because of freeway noise -- and that future residents be notified that airplanes might again fly from El Toro.

Commercial developments face less stringent noise restrictions than homes, and most of the property owners around El Toro had plans for business parks and retail complexes that would not run afoul of the commission.

But with the prospect of an airport almost nil, developers say they would prefer to build homes, given Orange County's hot housing market.

The Navy's sale of the land could take a year, maybe more, meaning the commission can continue to reject projects.

It is unclear how many projects have been affected by the commission. Joan Golding, the commission's executive officer whose staff makes recommendations to the panel, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Under state law, city councils can override the commission's decisions with a two-thirds majority, which Irvine has done with several projects. But Lake Forest and other cities have been reluctant, officials said, because such an action means the cities would assume liability if the former base did become an airport.

The commission comprises seven members appointed by the Board of Supervisors, the League of California Cities and others. It is charged with regulating development around John Wayne and Fullerton Municipal airports and the military airfields in Los Alamitos and El Toro.

The commission could vote to take El Toro out of its jurisdiction, but that would be premature, said Commissioner Rod Propst.

He pointed out that the panel promptly took the Tustin Marine helicopter base out of its authority once the Navy transferred the land last year.

But developers and Irvine officials say that the helicopter facility was already surrounded by development and that few if any new projects were affected by the commission.

"The bottom line is the [El Toro] land is still owned by the Department of Defense," Propst said. And only its sale will bring finality to the issue.

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