The Interior Department decided Friday to scrap a plan to exchange part of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station for land owned by the Irvine Co., a day after an Orange County congressman launched an all-out assault on what he described as a "rip-off" of taxpayers.
The land swap, initially proposed by environmentalists who want to preserve the pristine canyons on the Irvine Co. property, was on the verge of becoming a political swamp, largely because of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher's opposition.
Interior Department officials said their decision was partly based on the ongoing controversy over who will decide the future use of El Toro--the County Board of Supervisors or another group that includes south Orange County cities nearest the base.
"In recent days . . . it has become clear that the consensus we had hoped to gain in support of our land exchange proposal is increasingly elusive," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said in a statement.
The statement made no mention of Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who introduced legislation Thursday to stop the land swap and threatened congressional hearings. He followed up with a news conference in Orange County early Friday to whip up opposition to the swap, claiming it was a "sweetheart deal" for the Irvine Co.
Under the proposal, the Interior Department would have turned over to the Irvine Co. an estimated 850 acres on the perimeter of the base in exchange for about 10,000 acres of the company's land near Cleveland National Forest. The exact amount was to be based on a fair land appraisal.
A gleeful Rohrabacher called the Interior Department's decision "a great victory for the taxpayers."
Officials at Interior and the Irvine Co. had repeatedly dismissed the congressman's assertions, arguing that the proposal was in its early stages, would be based on land appraisals, and would not go through if the community opposed it.