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Marine Base Land Swap Downplayed by Irvine Co. : Conversion: Company official tells a group planning new uses for El Toro air station, due to be closed, that a deal to trade land is far from imminent.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Irvine Co. official Wednesday downplayed a potential land swap that would give the powerful development company control of the El Toro Marine Corp Air Station, telling a group of those most concerned about El Toro’s future that such a deal remains far from completion.

“There is no proposal. There are no specifics. There are no discussions, negotiations or actions that are imminent,” Monica Florian, the Irvine Co.'s vice president of corporate affairs, said at a meeting of the executive council of the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority.

Calling the discussions between the Irvine Co. and the federal government “very preliminary” and the land swap possibilities “undefined,” Florian told the group of more than 50 city leaders and business people: “We don’t have enough information to know whether anything can be considered seriously.”

For more than a year, the Irvine Co. remained largely in the background on possible uses for the Marine base, which is scheduled to close by 1999. Last week, however, company officials confirmed that the U.S. Department of the Interior had approached them about a possible land swap.

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Local environmental groups have suggested that the company trade some 10,000 acres of land it owns in the Santa Ana Mountains adjacent to the Cleveland National Forest for the 4,700-acre base in central Orange County.

Government and business leaders believe the developer would likely build a commercial airport at the base, an idea that many South County cities have been fighting for months.

Although such a land swap could circumvent the planning authority’s 18-month schedule for developing a community-supported proposal for El Toro’s conversion, members of the executive council asked few questions of Florian on Wednesday.

There was no discussion of the potential land swap other than Florian’s brief statement at the hourlong meeting, in which consultants presented an action plan for surveying the public and drafting ideas to submit to the U.S. Department of Defense, which will ultimately decide El Toro’s fate.

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“We’ve gotten a lot of questions asking for specifics (about the land swap) and we basically have told them we do not know any specifics,” Dan Miller, executive director of the planning authority, said after the meeting. “We have no specifics, there is no proposal, it is just an idea. Throughout the process, there will be ideas.”

But some members of the group’s executive council expressed concern after the meeting that the Irvine Co.'s influence in Washington, D.C., might allow it to sidestep the process designed to include public opinion about the base conversion.

“The sleeping giant obviously has not been sleeping all these months,” said Melody Carruth, a Laguna Hills councilwoman who objects to an El Toro airport.

“As long as there is public participation . . . we’ll come out with an effective and strong reuse plan that will be accepted,” Carruth said. “If this process is going to be short-circuited by a private company, we’ll oppose it.”

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Florian declined to discuss the land swap after the meeting.

Mark Goodman, who sits on the Laguna Niguel City Council and sides with Carruth on the airport question, said many of those involved in the El Toro reuse group have been contacting members of Congress to complain about the possible land swap.

“If this is pulled off by the Irvine Co., I salute their audacity. It’s the biggest sweetheart deal I’ve ever seen pulled off by a developer,” said Goodman, who argued that the undevelopable forest land is far less valuable to the Irvine Co. than the El Toro property.

But those who support the idea of an airport at the base remain supportive of the land swap as the least divisive way to secure an airport.

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“I think it may serve some real benefits, it may push some people in the county to make the right decision,” said Tom Edwards, a Newport Beach Planning Commissioner who is part of a group that advocates construction of a commercial airport at El Toro.


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