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ORANGE COUNTY VOICES : Public Deserves All the Details on El Toro Land Swap Proposal : Development: The Irvine Co. must provide many answers and assurances before the idea is allowed to proceed.

<i> Mark P. Petracca of Irvine is an associate professor of social science at UC Irvine</i>

Before too much enthusiasm is generated for the proposed land swap involving undeveloped Irvine Co. land near the Cleveland National Forest and the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station some very important issues need to be raised and questions answered.

The most important question for South County residents is what does the Irvine Co. plan to do with the El Toro base if it obtains it in a land swap? So far the company has feigned “absolute neutrality” on the development of a commercial airport at El Toro. This, as though a company that is known for planning every day down to a single blade of grass hasn’t already decided what it would like to do with El Toro. Give me a break. The company’s “neutrality” ought not to be permitted to last much longer.

The residents of Irvine, Tustin, Lake Forest, Laguna Hills, Laguna Beach and Mission Viejo deserve and should demand a forthright answer from the company as to its plans for the Marine base before any land swap is agreed to. It is impossible to believe that the company hasn’t reached at least a preliminary decision on land use for El Toro when it claims interest in swapping 10,000 acres of undeveloped land for it!

Next, the environmentalists proposing the swap, the Interior and Defense departments, and all impacted South County cities should obtain a complete and honest appraisal of the two land parcels in question. The agricultural, residential and commercial development potential of the El Toro base far exceeds value of the Irvine Co.'s land adjacent to the Cleveland National Forest, which is already restricted by environmental considerations. The public is entitled to know if a land swap is a fair deal for the taxpayers.

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After all, taxpayers currently own the El Toro Base.

Beyond assessing the value of the exchange, the public and elected officials must be assured that the Irvine Co. isn’t going to sell some portion of the Marine base back to the county and its taxpayers for use as an airport. This would be a classic Irvine Co. move--obtain the land, sell it back to the county for a big profit and then let county supervisors or members of the reuse planning authority take the political heat for development of a commercial airport that the company favored all along. Whether or not an airport is built at El Toro, county taxpayers should not have to pay for it twice.

Finally, the residents of South County cities should be guaranteed a role in any future land-use decisions involving the El Toro base before surrendering to the development ambitions of the Irvine Co. This won’t be easy to do, since the company is a highly skilled advocate. Elected officials rarely say no to Irvine Co. executives; even the opposition of community groups can be easily neutralized by effective lobbying.

No decision involving future land use at the El Toro site should be made without the full and direct involvement of the public. Our elected municipal, county, state and federal officials should demand no less than this on the public’s behalf.

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