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El Toro Flights to Signal Start of Base Phaseout : Military: Twenty-four jets will leave O.C. ‘Fly-down’ indicates to some that closure plan is irreversible.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twenty-four airplanes will fly out of here on Wednesday--for good.

The two squadrons of FA-18 fighter jets will take off from El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, engage in training exercises over the lawns and freeways of Southern California and, sometime around 3 p.m., land at the Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, where they will be greeted with the hoopla normally accorded a significant military event.

In fact, that’s exactly what this “fly-down” is: the first phase of a much-debated closure of a military base that the Defense Department has scheduled for a complete shutdown by 1999.

“I guess I had dared to hope that . . . this would never take place,” said Orange County Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, who has been a staunch supporter of keeping the El Toro base open. “I think when those squadrons move that the (closure) is done and not retrievable.”

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“It marks the beginning of the end of El Toro . . . (and) a new beginning for Miramar,” agreed Frank Collins, an administrative assistant to Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-San Diego). Miramar has been a Navy base for the past 40 years, but the Navy will hand it over to the Marines as part of the second round of base closures and consolidations ordered by Congress in the wake of the end of the Cold War.

After the Pentagon first announced its intention to close El Toro back in March, 1993, many local officials protested that it made more economic sense to close Miramar instead. In a series of public hearings, the debate raged.

Ultimately, however, military planners stuck to their guns, and the Marines are on their way back to Miramar, where they were stationed from 1943 to 1947.

“It’ll be good for San Diego and San Diego’s economy,” Collins said of the impending move.

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Conversely, El Toro’s closure will mean the loss of both an economic and social asset to the area.

A study released by Gov. Pete Wilson last year projected that the base closure would cost Orange County an estimated $60 million in military and defense industry contracts that generate a of $175 million for the local economy.

Combined with the scheduled 1997 closing of the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, the study found, Orange County’s employment picture could be eroded by nearly two percentage points as a result of the base shutdowns.

And then there’s the uncertainty of what the future holds. “It’s like anytime you lose a neighbor,” said Irvine Councilman Barry J. Hammond. “You’d rather not see them go. You never know who will be moving in next.”

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The base’s personnel also brought a measure of diversity to Irvine schools, said Hammond and other city officials.

“I think it was good having kids going to school and playing on the athletic field with (military) kids from all over the country,” Hammond said. “It provided a nice mix to Irvine schools.”

When the federal government purchased land for the base from the Irvine family in 1941, the area was home to the world’s largest lima bean field, according to historian Judy Liebeck, author of “Irvine,” a history of the city.

Liebeck said that the military’s land purchase “was the beginning of the end of the Irvine Ranch” because it allowed the county to reassess the value of the Irvine family’s vast agricultural holdings. The purchase caused a property tax increase that eventually made it more profitable for the ranchland to be developed than to remain in agricultural use, Liebeck said.

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Many residents know the base through the daily roar of jets overhead.

“I lived in (the) Northwood (district of Irvine) for a number of years, and I could always tell the state of world tensions based on the number of flights over my house,” Hammond said. “We didn’t have to watch the nightly news. We could just tell” by listening for the military jets.

In some ways, the base’s lasting legacy on the neighboring area is not yet clear. A debate is raging on whether the base should be converted into a commercial airport. And Liebeck points out that the base contains hazardous waste sites that will take years to clean up.

The military pullout is expected to bring dramatic changes to the mostly undeveloped farmland and open space around the base. Liebeck predicted substantial housing, hotel and commercial developments in the area when the pullout is completed.

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Still, Hammond and others said El Toro has been a positive force in the community. “The military has been a good neighbor to Irvine for many years and we, as a city, are sad to see them moving,” Hammond said. “Deep down in our hearts, many of us hoped something would happen and they would end up staying.”

This first wave of Marine departures from El Toro has already been delayed several times because of funding.

Originally scheduled for last month, the flight of the two FA-18 squadrons--VMFA (AS-121), an active-duty squadron attached to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, and VMFA-134, a reserve squadron--was put off because $1 million allocated by the government for the first phase of the move did not arrive on schedule. It was postponed again to allow planners to complete an environmental assessment regarding the relocation of the FA-18s.

“A combination of things have slowed down the process,” said Lt. Brad Bartelt, a spokesman for the Marine Corps. While the military would still like to complete the move by 1997, he said, “in reality we’re starting to bump up against” the 1999 deadline for closure.

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Marine personnel spent much of last week preparing for Wednesday’s flight of the FA-18s by transporting a variety of equipment by truck to the San Diego Naval base. Once in Miramar, Bartelt said, the equipment is being carefully stored in several empty hangars the two squadrons will occupy.

In addition to the 24 jets, he said, three support units will be making the trip by truck over the next three weeks. All told, he said, 410 active-duty Marine personnel and 470 reservists are about to have their jobs permanently transferred to Miramar.

That doesn’t mean that all of them will immediately be moving their living quarters, Bartelt said. Because most Navy personnel at Miramar live off base in civilian housing, he said, there are only 527 housing units--most of them already occupied--on the San Diego base. That number includes 180 new, four-bedroom apartments scheduled to be officially opened the same day the FA-18s arrive.

A handful of the El Toro Marines will be housed in those new apartments, Bartelt said. About 62 more will be placed on waiting lists to occupy the new units as more become available. And the rest of the Marines, he said, will remain in their present housing at El Toro and Tustin, commuting daily to San Diego at least until next summer.

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The military’s ultimate goal, Bartelt said, is to have about 3,200 housing units at Miramar, roughly the same number that already exist or have been approved at El Toro and Tustin. Given the vagaries of funding and policy, however, that probably won’t happen until the turn of the century, according to Bartelt.

In the meantime, he said, most of the estimated 11,000 Marines scheduled for transfer over the next three to five years will be living in San Diego “on the economy” or--in non-military terminology--in rental housing outside the base’s limits.

“There just is a drastic difference” between the number of units available in San Diego and at El Toro, Bartelt said. “For our Marines, it’s a quality of life issue.”

The Marines arriving Wednesday are expected to get a warm reception.

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Flying in by fours, the fighter jets will land at one-minute intervals. Then the Navy will officially welcome the Marines to Miramar by indulging in the old Navy tradition of “piping” them aboard. After having his name announced, the commander of each incoming squadron will march forward to a position on the field where a representative of the Navy will honor him by blowing a special whistle, similar to the whistles heard on ships.

The welcoming ceremony is expected to be seen by about 150 invited guests, mostly military and civilian dignitaries, as well as the spouses of the Marines whose units are flying in. Speakers at the event will include Navy Vice Adm. Robert J. Spane, Marine Maj. Gen. Drax Williams, Rep. Cunningham and several members of the San Diego City Council.

Then it will be back to work for the relocated flying squadrons as they continue their regular training routines while spending the next several weeks unloading numerous boxes in hangars.

“The military is used to moving constantly,” said Pete Ciesla, assistant transition coordinator for the Marines. “This is just another move for our people.”

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Times correspondent Shelby Grad contributed to this story.


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