Don't Tie Hands of Air Base Developer : Initiative on El Toro's Future Should Be Defeated

A lot of interest has been stirred over the disclosure that the Irvine Co. has been talking about a land swap with the federal government for the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. With all the controversy, it would be unsurprising if many simply wished a very complicated problem would go away.

There is great uncertainty about what will become of the base, and the Irvine Co. if nothing else is a known quantity. A binding initiative that would commit the county to only a commercial airport has been put on the November ballot by a breathless group of high-rolling developers who want to force the issue down on their side. Last month, a coalition of South County cities revealed so little confidence in the overall planning that it decided to do its own study on the environmental and economic impact of an airport.

Against this contentious backdrop, the Irvine Co. negotiations may seem like a breath of fresh air. There is ample evidence all around the base of how the company goes about developing communities. The land used to be in its portfolio and would be there today anyway were it not for one of those "deals" from Uncle Sam decades ago that one simply does not refuse.

While many have their quarrels with the way the Irvine Co. has appeared at times to dominate politics in the city that bears part of its name, this is a developer with a track record. It would be getting a huge swath of land about which there is a great deal of anxiety. In exchange, it would give the federal government a substantial portion of open space in the Cleveland National Forest area, an area that environmentalists are particularly interested in preserving.

But while there are favorable currents in the wind, we must remember that if such a trade were consummated, the base again would be private property with only the county Planning Department to look out for the public interest. Such a trade clearly would be a good deal for the Irvine Co. The developer would be giving up many acres of terrain that would be hard to develop in exchange for prime land. And if it wants an airport, it's a great deal for them.

Essentially, the Irvine Co. would be approaching the same set of questions that now face the authority charged with planning the future of the base. And federal officials have stressed that the plan would need agreement from the community. All of which brings us back to the current planning process, which is set in place and is going on despite all the distractions.

Ultimately, it is impossible to make an informed decision on the Irvine Co. swap, or any other particular proposal, until the reuse committee has had the chance to do its work and to lay out alternatives for the community at large to examine. The Irvine Co. swap would be a good thing if it produced a similar end result of sound planning, akin to that of the county planning group. But it could be a bad thing if better uses for the base could be found than those decided by the developer.

At the moment, there are few definite answers. But one thing that the proposed land swap should not change is the outcome of the vote on an airport. There is an additional reason now to turn it down because the Irvine Co. should not have its hands tied on exploring options for the land any more than the county should.

For now, it's nice to have an attractive-sounding proposal on the table. But there are many questions yet to be answered and those at the planning table should not throw in their cards just yet.

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