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Irvine Co.-El Toro Swap Gains : Conversion: Support swells for proposed land deal that would give developer control of base--and opening to build an airport.

With stunning consensus, environmental and political support swelled Friday for an enormous land swap that would give the Irvine Co. control of El Toro Marines Corp Air Station, amid growing speculation that the developer wants to build a commercial airport there.

Irvine Co. officials pledged, however, that the real estate giant is “absolutely neutral” on whether the base would become a commercial airport under the proposed land exchange that would give the federal government thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive land near the Cleveland National Forest, including the areas of Weir and Gypsum canyons.

The land-exchange idea, first proposed by local environmental groups to the U.S. Department of the Interior months ago as a way to preserve sensitive open space, is rapidly winning favor countywide as a way to spur a planning and development process mired in political controversy.

“I’d always hoped that we could do the best for the county; maybe now I’ll get my wish,” said Thomas F. Riley, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

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Although there seemed to be widespread support Friday for pursuing the land-exchange concept, some cautioned local leaders against moving too fast. Some South County officials, for instance, said they will insist on a voice in any El Toro development--no matter who owns it.

In addition, Interior officials--and the Irvine Co. itself--stressed that they are a long way from an agreement and pointed out that such a pact might take years to clear a series of legal and governmental hurdles.

For more than a year, the Marine base has been at the center of a raging debate over how the 4,700-acre property should be converted to civilian use when it closes by 1999.

And until now, the Irvine Co. has remained silent in the controversy which has literally divided the county, pitting airport proponents in the north against those in South County who are seeking an alternate development plan.

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But by Friday, there was general agreement within the business and government communities that a successful land swap with the Interior Department would almost certainly favor the creation of a new commercial airport.

Local developer Buck Johns, who is leading a November ballot measure to win approval for a future airport at the base, said the influential Irvine Co.'s joining the fray could only help his cause.

“You have to stand back and ask what would enhance the value of the property already owned by the Irvine Co. around the airport,” Johns said. “The answer to that is an airport.”

While acknowledging their interest in the land-exchange idea, Irvine Co. executives said Friday they were “absolutely neutral” on the question of airport development should they gain control of the base.

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However, one federal official familiar with the discussions said he believed the Irvine Co. was interested in using the property as a commercial airport.

“I believe that’s what they had in mind,” the official said. “Every time we started going down that route (talks about a possible airport site), I said, ‘Stop. No. That’s for somebody else to decide.’ ”

The Irvine Co. has continued to describe its discussions with the Interior Department as “conceptual,” but federal officials confirmed Friday that similar deals have been reached in other parts of the nation where military bases have been scheduled for closure.

“What’s gained is long-term conservation for the county and open space for residents in exchange for the development of an area that is already developed,” said Jay Ziegler, the spokesman for the Interior Department and one of several federal officials who visited Orange County to look over the base.

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If such a deal could be worked out, officials said, all three entities would gain: the Marines could get out of El Toro more quickly; the Irvine Co. would get some valuable Orange County property and the Interior Department would secure another parcel of land it considers crucial to the endangered gnatcatcher’s survival near the Cleveland National Forest.

Gary Hunt, Irvine Co. executive vice president of corporate and legal affairs, said the talks have not yet determined how much of the base could be obtained or exactly what parcels the Interior Department would like in exchange.

“All of this has been promoted by the environmental community,” he said.

Hunt estimated that such a deal could take two years to complete but cautioned that the company had not made any commitment to a proposal.

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“Obviously, there are a lot of environmentally sensitive lands in the north, and if those can be preserved by the government that would be a positive thing,” he said.

Connie Spenger, president of Friends of Tecate Cypress, said the environmental group has been working with the Sierra Club, the Tri-County Conservation League, Wilderness Society and other organizations to push the land swap.

Last month, Spenger said, her group sent a letter to the Irvine Co. proposing the swap and spelling out the benefits.

In subsequent discussions, the group suggested trading a 10,000-acre swath of terrain in the Santa Ana Mountains, next to the Cleveland National Forest, for a portion of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

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The Santa Ana Mountains terrain features a mix of rare Tecate cypress, oak woodlands and coastal sage. It is also home to numerous species of wildlife, including prairie falcons. There is also a rare golden eagle nesting site within the area.

In return for the wilderness property, the group proposed that the Irvine Co. acquire 3,500 acres of the 4,700-acre base. The remaining 1,200 acres is sensitive bird habitat that environmentalists hope will remain open space.

“I think this trade is a good possibility,” Spenger said. “I think it’s something many people in Orange County want. They’d rather have an environmental benefit come out of the base closure.”

While local environmentalists are being credited with pushing the land-swap arrangement, the idea stems from a concept Interior officials have been working on for about six months: the trading of bases that are destined to be closed for environmentally sensitive land that would otherwise be developed.

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The bases--scores of which are now being abandoned--would be turned over to private companies for development in exchange for land that Interior believes would be better preserved.

One example of such an arrangement in process is at March Air Force Base in Riverside, where Interior officials are working to swap 2,000 acres on the base that is low-grade habitat for the Stephens kangaroo rat in exchange for a higher-grade habitat off base that would be preserved.

Ziegler said federal and state government officials have begun to identify areas in Orange and San Diego counties for preservation that are gnatcatcher habitats.

Those reserves are still under design, but the Irvine Co. has substantial holdings in some gnatcatcher territory, including the area bordering the Cleveland National Forest.

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The El Toro base closure office first received official word of the Interior Department’s interest in a letter signed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt dated June 1.

In the letter to Defense Secretary William J. Perry, Babbitt said his agency had identified numerous military bases it would like to acquire.

Both the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and the neighboring Tustin Marine Corps Air Station were included on the list of bases that could be swapped for parklands.

The Tustin base conversion committee--separate from the agency set up to plan El Toro’s future--already has proposed that the Interior Department set aside one of its historic blimp hangars and 85 acres for parkland.

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Pete Ciesla, base coordinator at El Toro, said the air station might have been added to that list based on an early inquiry from a regional Native American group that has not followed up with any specific proposal.

Ciesla also said the Interior Department has not submitted a specific application for the proposed land swap, but the agency has until Dec. 1 to make its bid.

The official notification of the agency’s interest in the base was described by Ciesla as a “get your foot in the door” letter. “They said they are interested, based on local community requests they received.”

An official close to the Irvine Co. said that the land-exchange plan was not given a high priority until company officials recognized the opportunity to control a master plan of the entire area.

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Under the Defense Department’s base closure law, federal agencies get the first chance to claim military base property scheduled for closure.

A Washington-based attorney who specializes in this area of federal law, but who did not want to be identified, said that land swaps like the one now under consideration in Orange County have occurred in the past.

But federal officials said it is unlikely that the plan would go through unless the community is in agreement. The secretary of the Navy also would have to sign off on such a land exchange before it could be implemented.

Defense Department officials left open the possibility that special legislation might be required in order to turn the base over to a private landowner.

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In Orange County, former Irvine Mayor Larry Agran may have been the first to publicly float the idea of a land exchange involving El Toro.

In a commentary published by The Times Orange County Edition in early February, Agran suggested that the Irvine Co. deed “thousands of acres of its agricultural land” to the federal government which would then be placed in trust, “ensuring that much of Orange County’s remaining agricultural open space would be permanently preserved, forever free of development.”

Under Agran’s plan, the government would then give the developer control of El Toro, on the condition that there be no commercial airport development.

But Friday, as news of the possible land swap spread throughout the business community, prospects for a second Orange County airport seemed to gain momentum.

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Local developers and real estate experts hailed the possibility as a “win-win” situation for the Irvine Co., which could exchange hard-to-develop properties for valuable land adjacent to its flagship investment, the Irvine Spectrum. An expansive business park, the Spectrum has grown from 250 companies with 2,500 employees in 1984 to nearly 2,000 companies with more than 32,000 employees today.

“I think an airport, although they won’t admit it, is what they want to see there,” said Jeffrey W. Cole, president of the National Assn. of Office and Industrial Properties local chapter.

Possibilities for an airport become even more attractive when considering how difficult residential development would be in light of the toxic contamination of the base, said Jeff Meyers, head of a Newport Beach real estate consulting firm.

“With the toxic cleanup they would need to do, we wouldn’t see any housing development there in our lifetime,” he said. “This site is no cake-walk, but if anyone can develop it, it’s the Irvine Co.”

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In recent months, the task of planning for the civilian conversion of El Toro has been left up to a specially created intergovernmental agency called the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority.

But from the start, the planning process has been fraught with political controversy, mostly pitting South County interests against North County’s. It took months for officials to even settle on the geographic configuration of the agency’s nine-member governing board.

Despite the trouble, those involved in planning the agency seemed hesitant to abandon its mission to present an acceptable conversion plan to the federal government.

But should the land swap be approved, Riley said, it was possible that there might be no further use for the agency. At that point, he said, land planning authority should be handled by the county Board of Supervisors, since it already regulates development of all unincorporated property in the area.

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Dan Miller, director of the consulting firm working for the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, was disappointed that the authority--the agency responsible for producing an acceptable development plan for the Marine base--had been “left out of the loop” in the land-swap discussions.

One federal official called the idea the makings of “a scam,” suggesting that the Irvine Co. was giving away virtually worthless gnatcatcher habitat that would be difficult to develop in exchange for prime land in the heart of Orange County.

Lake Forest Mayor Marcia Rudolph, who opposes a civilian airport at El Toro, said she did not think Irvine Co. ownership of El Toro would derail the intergovernmental planning process.

The authority “is going to be integrally involved in the whole thing. The Department of Defense has recognized it as the official reuse planning agency,” said Rudolph. “Remember, it’s just ownership that’s changing, not use.”

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There is also disagreement over how a land exchange would affect the November election to determine whether an airport should be built on the property. Some believe that a ballot initiative would not govern private property.

But James E. Erickson, a local land use authority attorney who previously worked on the issue, said the ballot measure would have an impact.

The initiative, if approved, would require the county to zone 2,000 acres for commercial airport use. That zoning requirement would apply to whoever owns the land, Erickson said.

That could become important since both federal and local officials believe a land swap could not be completed by Election Day.

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“It’s a very intriguing scenario,” County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez said Friday. “This thing (land-swap proposal) has come over the hill rather quickly. I don’t how fast this train is going down the track.”

Let’s Make a Deal

The future of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station is one of the most hotly debated issues in Orange County. Environmentalists propose that the Irvine Co. swap 10,000 acres of undeveloped land bordering Cleveland National Forest to the U.S. government for 3,500 acres of the El Toro base.

Who Benefits

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* Interior Department: Undeveloped land is preserved for public use; expands half-million acre Cleveland National Forest

* Irvine Co.: Would have major influence over El Toro reuse plans after its closure

Top Three Scenarios

Since the base closure was announced in 1993, several reuse ideas have emerged.

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* Airport: John Wayne Airport has two problems. It moves no air cargo and is approaching its limit of 8.4 million passengers a year. An El Toro airport would provide-much needed relief to businesses, including Federal Express and United Parcel Service.

* Mass transit center: Buses, van-pools, taxis and commuter trains would be linked through Orange County Transit Authority. Plan calls for only 100 acres. Could be implemented with or without airport.

* Prison: Two security facilities would house more than 2,000 low- and minimum-level security prisoners. Plan calls for only 155 acres. Proposed by U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Sources: Irvine Co., Friends of the Tecate Cypress

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Researched by APRIL JACKSON / Los Angeles Times

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This story was reported by Times staff writers Eric Bailey, Faye Fiore, Kevin Johnson, Gebe Martinez and H.G. Reza and written by Johnson.


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