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Cargo Hub OKd at March Air Base

Panel approves plans to build a warehouse, allow 20 flights daily, including 11 at night.

September 24, 2004|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

An early Thursday morning vote to permit a commercial cargo hub at March Air Reserve Base capped a marathon public hearing that revealed the deep divide between longtime residents and newcomers to the rapidly growing suburbs of Riverside County.

The raucous meeting before the March Joint Powers Authority began at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and lasted past midnight at the Riverside Convention Center.

One side of the center was filled with supporters, including residents who have lived in Moreno Valley and Perris for decades, as well as real estate agents, Rotary Club members and retired military officers. Many vividly recalled when March Air Force Base was downsized a decade ago.

"There were 11,000 foreclosures in the city of Moreno Valley alone [in the mid-1990s]," said Linda Guillis, community economic development director for the city.

Landing a commercial tenant like shipping giant DHL, which is considering March as a regional air cargo hub, would bring 300 jobs and help the base remain financially viable.

The other side of the center was packed with residents from new housing developments near the base, including UC Riverside college students, public health professors and soldiers back from Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.

What haunts them is the specter of around-the-clock flights trailing noise and fumes. They waved signs reading "Let My Children Breathe" and "Count Sheep, Not Planes."

"I moved here because of three words: quality of life," said one young veteran. "Don't destroy my family's dream."

Proponents said the project would create as many as 3,000 indirect jobs, reducing commuter traffic to Los Angeles and Orange counties. Critics countered that those would be low-paying warehouse jobs for people who could not afford to live in the higher-priced homes being built nearby.

The eight-member March Joint Powers Authority Commission, composed of mayors, council members and county supervisors from Perris, Moreno Valley, Riverside and Riverside County, listened to about six hours of public comments.

The commission then voted, 7 to 1, to allow construction of a 380,000-square-foot package-sorting warehouse, and determined that adequate environmental studies had been done to allow 20 commercial flights daily, including 11 at night.

DHL told area politicians that it is considering March, Ontario International Airport and San Bernardino International Airport -- formerly Norton Air Force Base -- for a cargo hub and needs night flights.

Riverside City Councilman Frank Schiavone, who chairs the commission, said his yes vote was "based on an effort to retain the military presence at March.... I don't care so much about cargo, but I support joint use because that is the wave of the future, to help bear the expenses of the military."

Schiavone, who spoke with Pentagon staff on a three-day trip there this spring, said, "They're certainly watching us."Catherine Barrett-Fischer, a resident of nearby Orangecrest who spearheaded opposition to night flights and heavy diesel truck use at the base, accused Schiavone of reneging on a pledge to support a nighttime flight curfew, and said her group was discussing legal action in response to the vote. "We lost the battle, but we will win the war."

Schiavone said representatives of March Global Port, master developer of the cargo hub, originally said normal operating hours would be 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. But this summer they informed the joint powers authority that they had a prospective tenant who needed night flights that would fly at high altitude in flight patterns designed to avoid nearby residential neighborhoods.

"I was very comfortable with the fact that the commercial carriers would not fly over the neighborhoods," he said. "I thought it was great that the curfew issue was no longer an issue."

That didn't fly with many residents though, or with Supervisor Bob Buster, who cast the dissenting vote. Buster said test flights and up-to-date environmental studies about potential toxic emissions should have been done.

"It was clear that there was an attitude that they wouldn't make any kind of accommodations to the neighbors," he said.

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