The U.S. Department of the Interior said Wednesday it is prepared to swap all of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station with the Irvine Co. except for 1,100 acres, which the federal agency wants to keep as a gnatcatcher preserve.
Interior Department spokesman Jay Ziegler told the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority--the county panel formed to study how the 4,700-acre base should be developed--that the Irvine Co. was interested in obtaining the entire base, minus the 1,100 acres the federal agency wants to preserve, as part of a land swap.
But Irvine Co. Executive Vice President Gary Hunt, who addressed the planning group after Ziegler, said the developer has not decided how much of the base it wants to acquire and that it is not interested in land that might be used later for a commercial airport.
In a meeting punctuated with confusion and contradictory information, planning authority board members also expressed concern that they would only play a limited role in development plans for the base if the property is transferred to a private developer.
"Once it becomes private property, how much can we dictate . . . what's going to be on the base?" said board member and Irvine Councilwoman Christina L. Shea. The El Toro Marine Corps Air Station is scheduled to close by 1999, when the Marines are expected to have completed their move to the Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego.
Wednesday's meeting of the county planning agency was billed as the first time that Interior Department and Irvine Co. officials would publicly lay out details of their land-swap discussions. Instead, comments by Ziegler and Hunt added to the confusion and speculation surrounding the issue.
"If there is a land swap, the Irvine Co. is looking at the entire" base, Ziegler said. Deeding it all to the Irvine Co. will simplify development plans, he added.
But Hunt followed Ziegler to the podium and contradicted him.
"We do not know what land we're interested in. We do know what acreage we're not interested in--that's the acreage necessary to operate an airport," Hunt said. However, he quickly added that "if the county puts an airport there, we would be prepared to assist in that effort."
He also addressed Measure A, the initiative that would require a commercial airport at El Toro, and told the panel that the Irvine Co. is neutral on it.
After the meeting, it was apparent that nobody is sure how many acres the Irvine Co. would get in a land swap or how much of the company's property in the Cleveland National Forest, in North County, the federal agency would get in return.
Ziegler said afterward that his agency wants to acquire "ecologically sensitive" Irvine Co. land in and around Gypsum, Weir and Fremont canyons, which the federal government wants to preserve in conjunction with county and state environmental agencies.
Officials for both the Irvine Co. and the Interior Department insisted they will support any development decisions for El Toro made by the county planning authority.
But board members are clearly nervous about the proposed land swap.
County Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder asked Ziegler what good the Interior Department's promises to continue working with the planning authority will be, once the federal agency makes a land swap with the Irvine Co.
"That's an issue I would need to take back to Washington," he said.
If the Interior Department succeeds in establishing a gnatcatcher preserve at the base, Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez asked Ziegler, "would you in effect not take these 1,100 acres out of (the county planning) process?"
"Yes," Ziegler said.
But Ziegler quickly backpedaled under further questioning by Vasquez and others, and said that if the planning board does not support the idea of a gnatcatcher preserve, his agency would drop the idea.
But Supervisor Roger R. Stanton indicated he is not impressed with the idea of establishing a bird sanctuary at El Toro.
"They'll find someplace else to live if they had to," he said.