CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY : Each Obstacle to Conversion Costs Jobs : Government at all levels needs to make it easier for business to thrive on former military properties.

Twenty years ago, the federal government closed a base that had been considered one of the best duty assignments in the military. Hamilton Air Force Base was a handsome enclave, with charming Spanish-style buildings situated on gentle hills overlooking San Pablo Bay, north of San Francisco. Today, those vacant structures have fallen into decay, marred by shattered windows and weed-sprouting cracks in their walls.

The planned conversion of much of Ft. Ord, near Monterey, into a Cal State campus and UC research facility is a far more positive fate for another geographically desirable military base. But it's the exception, and a publicly funded effort.

Other recent base closures are threatened with grimmer prospects. The runway at George Air Force Base in Southern California's high desert bears a yellow "X" to warn aircraft that it is closed to traffic. Post-closure preservation of the historic blimp hangars at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station is in question because it's uncertain whether the city of Tustin can afford to maintain the facility for civilian use after the Marines leave. Conversion of Navy housing in San Pedro to a homeless facility has surrounding communities in arms.

The 22 military bases facing closure in California provided 200,000 jobs, directly and indirectly. But the current risks and uncertainties of converting the bases to private use has deterred businesses from pursuing base initiatives.

This is the reality that spurred Gov. Pete Wilson to create the California Military Base Reuse Task Force last year.

At a time when we are concerned about urban sprawl, shortages of affordable housing and loss of jobs, military bases facing closure are exactly the places we should be targeting for development. All of California's affected bases are situated near urban areas. Making use of these sites would help avoid urban expansion onto agricultural or prime habitat-preservation lands. Military bases offer offices, warehouses, airfields, seaports, dormitories, houses and many other ready assets, which will deteriorate and become worthless with age and disuse.

Why are there so few takers for base property? The list of reasons is daunting. Most base infrastructure--roads, street lighting, utility systems, water, sewer, and storm-drain pipes--was constructed many years ago for self-contained communities that were fully exempt from any state or local standards or regulation. Mishandling of toxic wastes has resulted in messes that may not be fully cleaned up in our lifetimes. Federal land sale and leasing procedures are arcane and time-consuming. Local governments often bicker over future land uses and zoning. And virtually any action is burdened by the massive red tape that seems inherent in environmental evaluations.

Despite these impediments, Congress, the Defense Department and our state legislators, while giving lip service to base conversion, have refused to adopt measures that might avert the disastrous base-reuse failures that loom. To counteract the significant disincentives to development, state and federal laws must treat closing military bases differently from other parcels of land. Several examples come immediately to mind:

* The California Environmental Quality Act must be modified to encourage rather than inhibit reuse of military bases. For instance, environmental evaluations should measure pollution, traffic and other activities when the base was open rather than using the closed facility as a baseline.

* The federal McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, written before huge properties like surplus military bases were envisioned as potential homeless camps, must allow greater local community involvement in decision-making.

* Additional financing and development tools under California Redevelopment Law must be made available to base closure communities.

* Environmental laws that have the effect of chasing jobs away from closing bases must be reasonably mitigated.

* The military must act more quickly to clean up toxic contamination on closing bases and Congress must appropriate adequate funds to complete the job.

Implementing these remedies would be a good start toward a serious base-reuse policy for California and the nation. We can't afford to let Hamilton Air Force Base become our vision for the future of California's closing bases.

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