Marines Give a Bit on Airstrip, Pick Up $8 Million for Housing

Times Staff Writer

A dispute over the use of 180 acres of prime land known as the Greenbelt in Laguna Hills has been settled by the Marine Corps and the developers of Leisure World.

For about $8 million, the Marines have agreed to waive deed restrictions that had blocked development of the site, mostly southwest of the El Toro Road-Moulton Parkway intersection in the retirement community of Leisure World.

Once the settlement is finalized, a group representing Leisure World founder Ross W. Cortese plans to sell the property for development as an office park, said Cortese’s attorney, Leonard Hampel.

The Marines paid Cortese, who owns the land, about $4.2 million in 1974 to scrap building plans for the site, which is 3 miles south of the busiest runway at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.


But in 1982, Cortese said that the circumstances surrounding the earlier agreement had changed and that he wanted the deed restrictions back. The Marines balked, saying the land was in the approach pattern for jet fighters and should be left as an “undeveloped corridor” to the air base for safety reasons.

Cortese filed a lawsuit, which remained in the courts for six years before the announcement Tuesday of the tentative settlement.

The agreement still needs approval from the Department of Justice, said Marine Col. Jack Wagner, the community liaison officer at the El Toro base.

Both the Marines and Cortese’s representatives said they were satisfied with the settlement.


It calls for Rossmoor Liquidating Trust, which oversees Cortese’s holdings in the Laguna Hills area, to pay $8 million for the deed restrictions held by the Marines. It also establishes a permanent, 1,000-foot-wide, open-space corridor through the area.

In 1974, the two sides agreed to a 4,000-foot-wide corridor, but Wagner said the new, narrower corridor is advantageous for both sides. “We get the open space needed under the approach pattern,” he said, “and they get a chance to sell or develop (most of) the land.”

Golf Course for Corridor

The acreage within the 1,000-foot corridor can be used only for recreation. Hampel, who represented Cortese in the suit, said a golf course is the most likely use.


Wagner said the Marines needed to keep some of the property open space in the event one of the jet fighters developed trouble on a training mission and had to make an emergency landing. The property is south of Runway 34, which handles 35,000 to 50,000 landings and takeoffs a year.

“If one of our pilots experienced some sort of in-flight trouble, he needs an option, an opportunity to try to set the plane down,” he said. “This corridor is vital to the base.”

Wagner said the $8 million would be used to build about 100 housing units at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station. There is a serious shortage of base housing at both El Toro and Tustin. About 1,500 Marines are on a waiting list for base housing, with the list growing longer as rents in surrounding communities climb.

“We’ve got some people commuting from Corona and Riverside because they can’t afford housing in Orange County,” he said.