The mayors of six south Orange County cities have notified the federal government that they will not join the county’s advisory panel studying future uses of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, deepening their rift with the Board of Supervisors.
Instead, the mayors stated in an Aug. 24 letter to the Department of Defense that they plan to create a new agency open to all 31 Orange County cities and to the county government, if it chooses to join them.
The mayors endorsing the letter were from Irvine, which has 300 acres of the base inside its city limits, Lake Forest, Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel and Mission Viejo. Collectively, they represent a population of about 360,000.
Despite a three-way split between the county, South County cities and North County cities over control of the Marine base, there were growing signs Monday that South and North County cities could agree, in general, on the makeup of an intergovernmental agency that would decide how to redevelop the 4,700-acre site.
While South County cities have opposed turning the base into a regional airport and North County cities have traditionally favored an airport there, any agreement by both sides to jointly study the future use of the base would greatly dilute the county’s claims before the Defense Department as the lead planning agency.
The federal government has stated that it will not provide grants for base conversion planning to competing groups, and that any redevelopment plan should have the cooperation of cities closest to the base, which is scheduled to close in four to six years.
Meanwhile, county officials said Monday that they had not seen the cities’ letter to the Defense Department. They added that it would hurt a smooth transition on base conversion.
“I’m sorry South County cities have decided to go out on their own,” County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider said. “This is not in the best interest of all the players in this whole thing, but I cannot control what they do.”
Schneider said, however, that he was confident that the county would become the ultimate authority for base planning.
“I can’t imagine the DOD recognizing anybody in the process that does not have land-use authority,” he said.
Kenneth Bruner, an aide to Supervisor Thomas F. Riley who is chairman of the county’s proposed task force, added: “The DOD is obliged to give technical support and advice to any one who asks for it. . . . I haven’t seen the letter, so I cannot comment on what it says.”
Hoping to still salvage its 21-member advisory task force, the county has invited city officials to an organizational meeting next month intended to help reconcile the lingering differences.
South County cities closest to the base object to the county’s plan because they want to share with the county the final decision-making authority. But supervisors said they should have the final say since most of the land is in an unincorporated area of the county.
The letter to the Defense Department’s Office of Economic Adjustment from the South County mayors does not hold out hope for compromise.
“We regret to inform you that we will not participate with the County of Orange in their reuse (committee) since it does not provide for a meaningful shared reuse authority between the County Board of Supervisors and locally elected officials,” the letter states.
In explaining their intention to go forward with their own intergovernmental agency, the South County mayors said they had “made numerous attempts to negotiate a compromise” with county officials, but “they were unresponsive to these attempts, citing their sole land-use authority.”
North County cities, meanwhile, felt the county ignored them altogether and recently formed their own planning group called the Orange County Regional Airport Authority.
During the weekend, the airport authority’s interim chairman, Garden Grove Councilman Mark Leyes, offered a compromise plan similar to what South County is developing.
The North County proposal, in fact, was refined after receiving input from South County officials and may be a signal that both sides are closer to a working relationship than what had been publicly displayed in recent weeks.
The North County compromise takes “airport” out of the agency’s name, makes no predetermination on whether a regional airport should replace the base, and would include all Orange County cities and the county government. It also would give the South County cities closest to the base a weighted vote in the decision making, with those cities having a greater share of the financial burden as well as any economic benefits that might come to all cities from future redevelopment.
Leyes and Stanton Councilman Harry Dotson said that if South County’s plan--expected to be ready in two weeks--follows the same guidelines, then it does not matter to them which faction gets the credit for creating the planning group.
“I think that if you are talking about a (legally binding agency) that includes all the cities, it’s more important what (the structure is), rather than where it started from,” Leyes said. “It’s OK if (the airport issue) is not predetermined as long as we can be at the table with (South County cities) and deliberate openly.”
Dotson said the North and South County cities are united on one key issue: They both challenge the county’s claim that it is the lead planning group.
“Like hell it is,” Dotson said. “The Defense Department is not going to find that the county plan meets the needs of the entire county.”
Irvine Mayor Michael Ward also agreed that the North and South County cities may not be far apart on the makeup of an El Toro planning committee.
“I don’t think we are” far apart, he said. “I think the North County cities have realized they cannot do it on their own.”
Meanwhile, the county has circulated a letter of its own to prospective members of its base redevelopment task force. The correspondence, sent by Supervisor Riley to many of the same cities in the South County coalition, urges all sides to reach agreement.
“The Board (of Supervisors) recognizes the diversity of opinion which exists in Orange County relative to the reuse planning structure,” Riley’s letter states. “Over recent weeks, we have all worked together to forge a reuse planning structure which will meet Department of Defense . . . and community expectations.
“This has not been an easy process for any of us; we all feel responsibilities to our constituencies and to our jurisdictions, which at times have placed us in conflict with each other. It is now time to turn these energies toward building consensus on reuse issues.”
Stressing the importance of working together, Riley added: “Planning for the reuse of MCAS El Toro affects all of us and is simply too important to not be ‘at the table’ to help craft the process by which we can proceed.”
Community and business leaders invited to join the county’s committee have until Sept. 15 to decide whether to attend the organizational meetings scheduled for Sept. 21 and Sept. 30. Schneider said that if cities do not respond, he may recommend that the supervisors name replacements for those seats.
Lake Forest Councilwoman Marcia Rudolph said it is interesting that the county and North County cities are “scrambling” to win the support of South County cities.
“If what we are doing down here was as irrational as some people are trying to make us believe, then why are they in such a dither?” she said.