El Toro’s Buffer Zone Limits Up for State Review

Times Staff Writer

The El Toro airport plan is dead. But a state panel wants to keep in place building restrictions on 14,000 acres of prime real estate around the closed military air base.

Developers have been eyeing the land since the base closed in July 1999 for upscale homes and higher-density commercial space if limits were to be lifted.

The land is near Orange County’s “golden triangle"--a vast swath of property where the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways meet in Irvine. Homes, schools and dense development have been barred for nearly 40 years because of noise from military jets and the potential dangers from crashes.

Voters in March rejected the county’s plans to transform the former Marine base into a major commercial airport. Voters rezoned the 4,700-acre base for a large park and other uses.

Frustrated city officials in south Orange County said they can’t fathom why the Airport Land Use Commission wants to continue restrictions they consider outdated. The commission argues that the rules should remain until the military turns over El Toro -- a process that could take several years.


The edict affects land in Irvine, Lake Forest and Laguna Woods, Rancho Santa Margarita and Aliso Viejo.

Much of the so-called buffer zone already has been developed with low-level commercial sites, which is allowed under the restrictions. But cities see some of those buildings being replaced with larger commercial and residential development. About 4,000 acres of the buffer zone are undeveloped.

“I’m appalled that a government agency can just stick its head in the sand,” said Lake Forest City Councilman Peter Herzog.

“There’s no question that an airport at El Toro is pretty much dead,” added Irvine Mayor Larry Agran. “It’d be nice if other public agencies caught up to that reality.”

The land is tantalizing, particularly for new homes, said Richard Gollis, a principal with the Concord Group, a real-estate consulting company in Newport Beach.

“Irvine is a huge job center, but they need housing,” said Gollis, who heads the Orange County chapter of the Urban Planning Institute. “A lot of [the property] could easily be converted to residential with supporting commercial [areas].”

The Airport Land Use Commission is set to vote Dec. 19 on whether to keep the limits around El Toro, as well as John Wayne Airport, Fullerton Municipal Airport and the Joint Forces Training Base at Los Alamitos. Written comments on the issue will be accepted by the commission through Wednesday.

Commission officials say they have no choice but to continue the restrictions around El Toro because the land is still owned by the federal government.

A judge ruled last year in a lawsuit brought by Lake Forest and Irvine that the commission had the authority to continue the building limits at least until the Navy conveyed the property to new owners. The Los Angeles County judge noted that El Toro could be reactivated during a national emergency.

The Navy told the commission by letter last month that it shouldn’t wait to open up land around El Toro to more intense development.

The military has no intention of recommissioning the base and is preparing to sell the property for new homes, businesses and public park uses, wrote Wayne Arny, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Navy.

Moreover, the strictest building restrictions -- on areas that once bore the brunt of jet noise -- haven’t been updated since 1981 and “should not be used as a basis for any land use planning effort,” Arny said.

For the last three years, Irvine has plowed ahead with its development plans despite commission protests. The city has approved neighborhoods, high-rises, schools and child-care centers in the buffer zone, including nearly 15,000 new homes.

“The city of Irvine disagrees ... that [Marine air station] El Toro ‘is in transition,’ ” Irvine Director of Strategic Planning Dan Jung wrote to commissioners to protest any continuation of the limits. “The federal and local decisions regarding the reuse of El Toro are conclusive. El Toro will not be used as a military or a commercial facility.”

Under state law, the city is allowed to override the commission’s objections. But it also would assume full liability for noise or property damage if an airport were built at El Toro or the base was reactivated.

Lake Forest took a more cautious approach with its 2,200 acres in the buffer zone, of which about 1,000 acres are vacant. That city hasn’t allowed any unauthorized development.

A study next year will examine what might be built in Lake Forest when restrictions expire.

Given the average pace of residential development in south Orange County, another 9,000 to 18,000 homes could be built on the vacant land, Gollis said.

Lake Forest’s Herzog said the city is considering asking a court to intervene if the commission continues the restrictions.

“They’re ignoring voters, and they’re ignoring the Navy,” he said.

Written comments on the commission decision can be sent to Tim Neely, Environmental Services Planning Division, Planning and Development Services, P.O. Box 4048, Santa Ana, 92702-4048, Attention: Lisa Cibellis.