Closed Military Bases Closed to Airport Expansion

Tuesday, May 17, 2005
Obstacles Can Stop Efforts to Reuse Bases
The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES – Regional planners saw a great chance to open a much needed commercial airport in Southern California after the sprawling El Toro Marine Corps Air Station closed in 1999. But six years later, the base 50 miles south of Los Angeles is in limbo. Orange County voters rejected the airport plan and opted for thousands of new homes, office buildings and a huge park on the 4,700-acre site _ development that has yet to begin. The base’s warehouse facilities are being leased to private firms and a golf course and horse stables are used by the public.

El Toro is a striking example of how a military base closing, painful by itself, can lead to years of bickering and delays while divergent factions fight big battles over how to develop them. It’s a situation that could lie ahead for dozens of communities across the nation after the Pentagon announced plans last week to close 33 major bases in 22 states as part of a $48.8 billion cost-cutting drive.

“The bottom line on base closure is that it’s always a trauma for the local community,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute public policy group near Washington, D.C. He has advised municipalities around the nation on how to reuse former military bases.

Thompson said many communities tend to delay coming up with plans to reuse shuttered bases because they don’t want to accept the possibility of closure.

Once the military decides to decommission a base, it requires local government to come up with a plan to redevelop the property. In many cases, it can take years to sort out the resulting disputes over how to replace lost economic opportunities or clean up the environmental waste that marks many of the sites.

“It’s not a very good track record,” said Leon Panetta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff who now co-chairs the California Council on Base Support and Retention, a panel formed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to coordinate the state’s base retention effort.

“If a community is divided on how a base will be reused, that will further delay the process,” he said.

El Toro Marine Corps Air Station had been operating since World War II when its closure was announced in 1993. A year later, countywide voters passed a referendum calling for an airport at the site.

Backers of the plan contended another regional facility was badly needed to help take the pressure off congested Los Angeles International Airport, 50 miles to the north. Annual air travel in Southern California is expected to double to more than 140 million passengers by 2030.

But a coalition of eight cities near the base fought the idea, arguing as part of later ballot initiatives that a commercial airport would be unsafe, hurt the value of homes and generate pollution and noise. Ultimately, it prevailed, in a second referendum.

“The communities immediately surrounding the property were very, very vociferous,” said Fredric Woocher, an attorney who represented the group behind the airport plan. “They managed to gather a large amount of money, often using public resources, to promote their position.”

The communities were not adequately consulted at the start of the planning process that led to the first airport referendum, said Meg Waters, spokeswoman for the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, a government agency representing the eight municipalities.

“They failed Planning 101,” she said. “The Navy or federal government, by allowing the county to exclude the cities next to the base, set up a situation that was doomed to failure from the beginning.”

In February, Miami-based Lennar Corp. won the bidding to build 3,400 homes on the land and paid the Department of Defense a total of $649.5 million, or roughly $1.2 million per acre fit for development. Escrow is set to close July 12, with home construction to follow in 2007 after runways are broken up and other initial development work is done, said Emile Haddad, president of Lennar’s California region.

Another part of the base is slated to become one of the largest urban parks in the nation.

Still, the fight over the base isn’t over.

On May 11, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to ask its regional airport commission to petition the courts and take whatever other action it could to have a commercial airport built on the former military outpost. It’s unclear if those moves could resurrect the airport plan.

Successful base redevelopment often comes down to whether a community has other economic engines besides the military, Thompson said.

“The communities that already have a lot going for them will benefit from the closures and the communities that don’t, won’t,” he said.

For example, when Philadelphia’s Naval Shipyard closed in 1991, it took out a third of the manufacturing jobs in the Delaware Valley, Thompson said. By comparison, the redevelopment of the former Fort Ord Army base in Monterey County, Calif., has been a success _ part of the base is now used as a much-needed campus by the California State University system.