When the Navy announced the closure of the Tustin Marine base in 1993, local officials immediately saw the possibilities in the 1,600-acre windfall -- new homes, parks, shopping malls and tax revenues.
After 10 years, three lawsuits and countless hours of lobbying nearly every level of government, those possibilities will begin taking shape today with a groundbreaking for the first 376 homes to be built on the former base.
“It’s been a long process,” said Tustin Mayor Tracy Wills Worley who, along with other city officials and developers, is scheduled to shovel symbolic piles of dirt in a vacant 30-acre lot on the southeast corner of the former helicopter base.
The simple act will mark a milestone in the redevelopment of Orange County’s surplus military land, which includes the 4,700-acre El Toro Marine base. The last of the Marines left both bases in 1999, but their reuse has been mired in disputes.
For years, El Toro’s neighbors fought attempts to turn the airfield into a commercial airport. Last year, Orange County voters approved a plan, championed by Irvine, to turn the base into an urban park with about 16% of the land going to development.
Irvine is expected to annex El Toro in the fall, and the Navy will begin selling parcels shortly thereafter. The city will charge developers fees to fund the park and other public uses.
Meanwhile, most of the Tustin base will be converted for commercial and residential use with about 240 acres reserved for parks and schools.
Barracks are being converted into a homeless shelter, but Thursday’s groundbreaking marks the beginning of the redevelopment in earnest.
“We had no idea it would take 10 years,” Worley said. “When the federal government closed the bases, it turned into food fights. Everybody felt entitled to a piece of the land and we were no different.”
After the Navy announced the closures, Tustin was charged by the federal government with turning the helicopter station into civilian use.
But the city became entangled in a dispute with two Santa Ana-based school districts over division of the spoils.
Santa Ana Unified and Rancho Santiago Community College were among five districts originally approved by the federal government to receive land on the base for schools. But when Tustin submitted final redevelopment plans, it gave about 100 acres to Tustin Unified and the South Orange County Community College District, and nothing to the Santa Ana districts.
Tustin said it needed the portions of the base that fell within the Santa Ana school districts for commercial development to help fund public improvements on the rest of the base. The Santa Ana districts sued in state and federal courts, alleging Tustin was discriminating against their mostly Latino and low-income students. The districts successfully lobbied for state legislation to halt redevelopment unless Tustin gave land to the Santa Ana school districts.
Tustin officials took offense at the racism charges and sued the state for meddling in federal land affairs.
Both sides pressed their cases with federal and state leaders. Navy officials threatened to auction the land.
“I can’t think of anything that was more challenging,” said William A. Huston, Tustin’s city manager for the last 20 years. “The only thing more challenging in my career was maybe dealing with natural disasters, and that’s a life-and-death situation.”
Last year, Tustin settled with both school districts. The Rancho Santiago Community College District received 15 acres inside a planned education complex that will also include other schools. Santa Ana Unified settled for $60 million instead of land.
The Navy has sold 240 acres to another residential developer to cover its own costs, such as cleaning up toxic waste at the base.
The county received 84 acres and one of two hangars that once housed World War II blimps. The county is considering public uses for the hangar.
Tustin received the rest of the base with the stipulation that proceeds from land sales be invested in redevelopment.
The city has sold 90 acres to a Phoenix-based company to build a shopping center and is in the process of selecting a developer for a 710-acre chunk of the base which will include homes and businesses.
The completed project will feature a master-planned mix of 4,000 homes and about 9 million square feet of office, commercial and retail space.
John Laing Homes, which is building the 376 homes that begin construction today, expects to complete them in six months to a year.
Tustin Councilman Jeffery Thomas, who was first elected in 1992 and closely involved in the reuse of the base, said today marks the capping of “a historic moment that will probably happen only once in my lifetime ... hopefully.”