Planners Offer Suggestions for El Toro Base : Reuse: Officials encourage input and insist an airport is not a foregone conclusion. Critics call brainstorming process a sham.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A place to bet on the ponies, new football and baseball stadiums, a university or another theme park were some of the uses for the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station suggested Thursday by Orange County's hired planners.

"These are preliminary concepts," cautioned county land-use advisor Bonnie Fischer, insisting with other county officials that a controversial proposal to build a commercial airport at the base is not a foregone conclusion. "It's to initiate a conversation of what might happen."

The Orange County Citizens Advisory Commission hopes to use the planners' six proposals as a starting point to attract public interest and suggestions for the fate of the El Toro base.

"This is a place to begin," Commission Chairman George B. Scott said. "We want people to understand we're keeping an open mind on this. And we'd like to hear what they have to say."

County planners will study the feasibility of their own and others' ideas and ultimately will present three options to the commission, including at least one plan that doesn't include an airport.

The planners' ideas presented Thursday had several common themes, such as preserving at least 1,000 acres for a nature habitat, turning at least 400 acres into a light-industrial and office complex south of the Irvine Spectrum and creating lots of open parkland.

Other suggestions include a university, research facilities, planned communities and office developments.

Several options were more unusual:

* An automotive center with a racetrack for hot rods, surrounded by businesses catering to automotive research and development.

* A spectator sports and recreation complex including a 70,000-seat football stadium, a 45,000-seat baseball stadium and a horse-racing track, along with new golf courses, recreational fields and an equestrian center.

* A film production studio and theme park, similar to Universal Studios.

* A hybrid that would include residential development, a theme park, academic campus and sports complex.

The proposals come as the county faces one of its most significant land-use decisions. The 4,700-acre Marine base will be vacated by the military by 1999.

A slim majority of Orange County voters approved Measure A, which amends the county's General Plan to allow development of a commercial airport at El Toro. Airport opponents are fighting back with Measure S, which goes before voters in March and would halt an airport's progress.

Alternative uses are critical in case an airport is determined to be unworkable, county officials said.

Dave Ellis, a consultant to Measure A backers, said the proposals prove that the county is considering all alternatives for the base. Supporters contend the airport will improve Orange County's economy, bringing thousands of jobs and stability to the area.

But airport critics contend this brainstorming process is a sham and the county is set on developing a commercial airport, which, they say, will bring traffic and noise and devastate surrounding home values.

Irvine Mayor Michael Ward, whose city would be heavily impacted by a commercial airport, criticized county officials for not holding Thursday's hearing at night, when more people could attend. About 60 people attended the meeting, most of them county officials, consultants or interested developers.

"They're holding a public hearing and presenting a public use for the base, but the public won't be there," fumed Ward. "This is a scam of a public meeting."

Ward also called the proposals "nothing new and imaginative, but all stuff we've talked about before."

Officials are working on the schedule for future public hearings.

The county hopes to have a plan in place by the fall. Suggestions may be directed to Orange County Planning Director Thomas B. Mathews at P.O. Box 4048, Santa Ana, CA 92702-4048.

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