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Navy Memo Still Sees Chance of Saving El Toro

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Navy is studying the possibility that some naval and Marine Corps bases slated for closure could be kept open if Congress can be persuaded that the military installations are vital to national defense or closing them would be too expensive.

A June 1 Navy Department memo told base commanders they are welcome to “propose changes to the previously approved . . . base recommendations of the . . . (congressionally appointed) commissions.”

The El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Orange County is among the bases scheduled to be closed by 1999. The Marine Corps is a part of the Navy.

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The Base Closure and Realignment Commissions have made recommendations to Congress in 1988, 1991 and 1993 on which military bases are the least vital to national defense and could be closed as a means of reducing defense spending.

Congress will appoint a new commission in 1995 to recommend additional closings of military bases, and the Navy Department memo raises the possibility that some Navy bases that are still operating but scheduled for closure could eventually be put on a list of bases to be “reconsidered” by the new commission.

The memo, which was obtained by The Times, instructs officials at bases scheduled for closure or realignment that they must give “compelling reasons” for saving the installations. It notes that changes in the base-closure plans could be made if “significant revisions to cost-effectiveness . . . have occurred since the relevant commission recommendation was made.”

In addition, the memo states that a reconsideration request should address a base’s “clear military value” and “significant savings” that can be realized by keeping the installation open, rather than closing it. But any request for reconsideration should “be submitted with full objective justification,” said the memo.

A Navy official familiar with the memo said it opened “a Pandora’s box” in the case of the El Toro base. Marine Maj. Gen. P. Drax Williams, commander of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, and other supporters of the base have argued in the past that closing the base and moving the Marines to Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego is not cost-effective.

Last year, Williams raised eyebrows in Washington by publicly questioning whether it wouldn’t be cheaper to keep El Toro open. In March 1993, Williams told a Leisure World audience: “We are not going to make a stupid decision here. If in fact this is too hard to do or it’s too expensive, or if it’s immoral to dump 4,600 Marine families on the economy in San Diego . . . then El Toro will not close.”

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On Wednesday, some supporters of El Toro said the Navy’s apparent willingness to take another look at the decision to close the base shows that Williams was correct when he argued that it was cheaper to keep the Marine installation open.

“I think the memo vindicates (Williams’) earlier position,” said Art Bloomer, former commanding general at El Toro and Irvine city councilman. “Closing El Toro is a dumb move. It’s not cost-effective, and the decision to shut it down should be reversed.”

In the past, Williams has expressed concern about how Marines could be housed in San Diego, where there already is a shortage of military housing. The Marines Corps would have to subsidize the housing of Marine families who would be forced to rent homes.

According to Marine figures, closing El Toro and the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, which is scheduled to be closed by 1997, will cost about $1.6 billion. Lt. Brad Bartelt, a Marine spokesman at El Toro, said it costs about $46 million annually to run the El Toro base.

Bartelt said the Marines have not seen the Navy memo and declined to comment.

Navy officials in Washington ignored requests for comment on the memo.

Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood said that “anything is possible if it gets into the 1995 commission’s hands.” But he said that Navy and Marine officials would have a “tough selling job ahead.”

Even if Navy and Marine officials wish to put El Toro on a reconsideration list in 1995, they still would have to convince the Defense Department that the Marine base should be saved. If Defense Secretary William Perry agreed that El Toro should remain open, then he would ask the yet-to-be-empaneled 1995 commission to consider keeping the base.

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“If the secretary (of defense) doesn’t buy it, then the base will be closed as planned,” Flood said.

There is precedent for putting bases on a reconsideration list. The Marine helicopter base at Tustin was recommended for closure by the 1991 commission, which also suggested sending Tustin’s helicopters to the Marine base at Twentynine Palms.

The 1993 commission agreed that the Tustin base should be closed, but canceled the transfer to Twentynine Palms and redirected the helicopters to Miramar instead.

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), whose district includes the Marine base, said “the possibility that El Toro would be put on the reconsider list in 1995 has always existed.”

But Cox, a supporter of the Marine base, said he is “90% sure” the recommendation by the 1993 commission to close the installation “will stick.

“The Navy still wants to close El Toro, but they haven’t been able to find the $1 billion needed to move the Marines to Miramar,” said Cox. “That is the only reason for the Navy’s reconsideration.”

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Supporters of a November ballot advisory measure in favor of converting the El Toro base into a commercial airport said it is unlikely that the Pentagon or the 1995 commission would reverse course and work to save the Marine air base.

“There may be all kinds of reasons for keeping El Toro open, but it’s unlikely once they make a decision to close the base they will make another decision to reopen it,” said Garden Grove City Councilman Mark Leyes. “The base is going to close, and if we’re wise, we’ll use it as a commercial airport.”

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