TUSTIN : City Opposes U.S. Prison for Air Base

The City Council has unanimously opposed a proposal by a federal agency to convert 250 to 1,000 acres of undeveloped land on the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station into a correctional facility.

The council on Monday called the request by the Justice Department's Bureau of Prisons unacceptable, saying the land was too valuable to be sold below market cost so that a prison might be built in the midst of large residential areas.

Last year, federal officials decided to close the Tustin base by 1997 in order to cut costs. Most military operations at the base, which employs 4,100 persons, will be moved to Twentynine Palms.

Use of the property as a prison "would defeat the purpose of selling the land to recover the cost of the Marine base relocation," Mayor Leslie Anne Pontious said.

The council's action supported a decision by a task force of community, business and public agency representatives, which voted Dec. 15 to oppose the correctional facility proposal.

However, the city has no direct authority over disposal of the base. The Department of the Navy, which owns the 1,500-acre property, will make that decision, according to Assistant City Manager Christine Shingleton.

But the Navy will consider the wishes of the community, Shingleton said. In January, the task force listed uses for the property it considered unacceptable, and a prison facility was on the list, Shingleton said.

Used primarily as a helicopter station, the base has 13 miles of roads and 171 buildings. The Navy hopes to discard 1,200 acres and keep 300 acres for military housing.

Under federal law, first priority in the disposal of surplus military property goes to the homeless. Then come federal, state and local government agencies, with preference to be given proposals for educational or health facilities, wildlife conservation areas, airports or parks.

Only then may private interests bid on the base property.

Shingleton said Patricia K. Sledge, chief of site selection and environmental review of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, sent the proposal to the Navy earlier this year.

In her letter, Sledge said that a federal prison "could bring from 280 to 800 federal jobs to the community with an average salary of over $26,000." She said the estimated annual budget for such a facility is between $12 million and $30 million.

If a prison were to be constructed, Sledge said the cost would range from $60 million to $200 million.

Rex Combs, a member of the Tustin Meadows Homeowners Assn. and a task force member, called the proposal appalling. "This is something we don't need for a neighbor," he said.

Todd Ferguson, another task force member, said he wants a special high school built instead of a prison. "I want a futuristic school that incorporates occupational training to the high school curriculum," he said.

The Sheriff's Department has also made inquiries about a possible jail facility, according to Shingleton.

Shingleton, who sits on the task force, said the Navy is expected to make a decision by April.

The Department of Education, the Coast Guard and the Air Force have also shown interest, Shingleton said.

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