NEWS ANALYSIS : Irvine Co. Quietly Bides Its Time in Base Plan Debate : Conversion: Regardless of the outcome, the company, with about 4,000 acres near El Toro, stands to benefit.


In all the rhetoric that has consumed planning for the afterlife of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, including the promise of big profits from development there, the voice of one corporate giant has been noticeably silent: the Irvine Co.

By far the largest owner of undeveloped property ringing the air station, officials with the real estate giant have neither been stalking supervisors at the Hall of Administration nor have they taken sides in the roiling debate over whether a new commercial airport should be in El Toro's future.

"I haven't seen them anywhere," said Supervisor William G. Steiner, whose county office has served as home to an "El Toro encounter group" in recent months for various interests, from the Lincoln Club, one of Orange County's most politically powerful groups, to Leisure World, the senior citizen community in Laguna Hills.

The company's public silence has taken on an element of political intrigue all its own in some quarters, yet differs little from the reclusive personality of Donald Bren, whose Irvine Co. controls more than 60,000 acres in Orange County. Company officials say that about 4,000 of those acres are in the immediate area of the base.

The company has maintained its neutral stance even as leaders of the Lincoln Club have filed an initiative seeking approval of a commercial airport through a vote of the people. At the same time, government officials in South County--where the Irvine Co. is a dominant force--have adamantly opposed an airport at El Toro, fearing increased noise and traffic to the area.

"You don't get that kind of money by sitting pretty for long," Supervisor Thomas F. Riley said. "Donald Bren is a pretty smart person. They are going out to see what's best for the Irvine Co. . . . We'll hear from them."

But the right time, company officials say, has not yet arrived.

Irvine Co. Vice President Monica Florian said the issue has been particularly vexing and presents possible development limitations for the company, whether or not the base becomes a new airport.

"All of the different possible uses for the base have different implications. There is a big new universe there," Florian said.

Said company Vice President Larry Thomas: "There are very complex questions that are not easily answered. Unless you do the studies, there is no simple way to assign whether one kind of development will be good or bad.

"If you have an airport, what does it mean?" Thomas said. "Does that preclude other uses? If it does, does that mean the land becomes less valuable? I guess it depends on how the officials draw the maps."

For years, Florian said, the company maps have always been drawn on the basis that El Toro would continue to operate as a military base.

"We have decades of planning agreements with the Marines and the (adjacent) city of Irvine that reflect that," she said.

Rather than participate in a potentially divisive airport initiative or join the vanguard of South County cities in their vocal opposition to an airport, Florian and Thomas said the company intends to allow the newly created El Toro Planning and Reuse Authority to commission studies of possible new developments for the base before taking a position.

"The initiative may be a way to expedite the gathering of information from the community," Florian said, "but from personal experience it's not the kind of atmosphere that can necessarily get good information."

Florian said she shares the frustration of the local business community with the months it has taken to create the authority and begin planning, but the company has committed to participating as one of 50 members of the authority's executive advisory council.

"I think there is a frustration on everybody's part on how to crystallize the decision-making process," she said.

For various reasons, chief among them being the maintenance of political relations with South County cities, Irvine City Councilman Barry J. Hammond said the Irvine Co. would gain little by taking a strident position.

"They've definitely been the sleeping giant in this thing," said Hammond, one of the city's delegates to the authority's nine-member governing board. "I know they are going to keep a very close eye on what's going on, but I don't think it would be politically wise for them to get involved now.

"There is no need for them to take a position that would alienate some (government) officials who may have to vote on their future projects," he said.

Hammond said that company officials would likely allow the planning process to run its course since the Irvine Co.'s status as the area's largest landholder leaves them in a virtual no-lose position for most any future base development.

Wayne Wedin, chairman-elect of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce, said the company's current neutral position is reflective of a methodical and very "process-oriented" approach, not particularly unlike the company's corporate personality.

"All I can tell you is that Monica (Florian) has been very supportive of the authority and the established process," Wedin said, "but I don't know what Don Bren or (Irvine Co. Executive Vice President) Gary Hunt might be thinking.

"Maybe the smartest thing for them to do is not to be too far out front on this thing and not get sucked into the fray too soon," he said. "They've got to be very careful."

Nonetheless, the company's enormous real estate holdings and presence in the community have been difficult to ignore as the fractious debate has raged on. And there are some who believe the company could ultimately serve as a "peacemaker" when more specific and controversial land-use proposals are floated.

"They are going to have to do it in a way that won't alienate the South County cities," said Anil Puri, co-director of Cal State Fullerton's Institute for Economic and Environmental Studies. "But at the same time, they are going to have to do it in a way that promotes long-term growth."

For now, Puri said, the Irvine Co.'s silence should be a relief for local politicians, especially members of the Board of Supervisors, who now find themselves juggling the interests of a divided county.

"The Irvine Co. might be doing the supervisors a favor by not coming to them now," Puri said. "I certainly would not want the biggest developer in the land coming to tell me what they want on top of everything else that's been happening."

Until the studies are complete, Florian and Thomas said there are few facts to discuss. While some may advocate plans for a commercial airport, Florian said little is known about "what kind of an airport. What kind of planes will fly in and out? What regulations will there be? There are not answers to those questions yet.

"As the process moves forward, there will be something more tangible to talk about," she said. "We are not afraid to engage community groups on matters of policy."

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