Military Fires Opening Salvo Over Land Use

Times Staff Writer

The fighter planes that still roar above Alice Harris' house in the high desert of the Antelope Valley fly so frighteningly low it sometimes seems they will slice her water tower in two.

"So many times, they'd just thunder by, and I'd wonder if they were going to take the roof off," Harris said from her white, two-story house atop a barren hill 50 miles north of Los Angeles. "It was almost as loud as the big boom when the space shuttle comes in."

Not many jets buzz her home these days, because the pilots have gone to war. But the Pentagon, already planning for the pilots' return, has taken a rare step into civilian politics to ensure that Harris' stark valley remains more a home to coyotes than to people and stays suitable for low-level combat training.

In a recent letter to Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, a top Department of Defense official asked him to intervene in the proposed development of a large new city on Tejon Ranch, just across a rural street from Harris' house.

Military officials acknowledge that the letter is an opening salvo in a campaign to protect their interests as California grows by a projected 25 million people by 2040. Policy and planning experts also see the letter as the opening of a new chapter in California land-use disputes.

"To see the military asserting its interests this way is new and different to us," said Peter Detwiler, a local government consultant to the state Legislature for 20 years. "This is a face we have not seen in the land-use debate before."

The effect of civilian development on military bases is increasingly an issue across the state, because the need to accommodate California's growing population has led to housing projects on land where the armed forces once had nearly free rein. The state is now completing a $1-million study on how civilian populations are affecting operations at bases from Barstow in the inland desert to Camp Pendleton on the San Diego County coast.

State officials and military strategists say rarely, if ever, has the Department of Defense taken the fight to a developer to halt or alter construction plans.

Yet, two weeks ago, Rear Adm. J. L. Betancourt, writing on behalf of military services in California, told Schwarzenegger that development of the city of Centennial, near Gorman, would likely have "severe impacts" on the nation's military readiness by interfering with the training of Navy, Marine and Air Force combat pilots.

This year and next, the military will be armed with a potent political weapon: a nationwide round of base closures scheduled for 2005 that could be used as leverage.

California lost $30 billion in annual military spending during the first four rounds of base closures, beginning in 1988. So state lawmakers are paying close attention this time to any possibility of further erosions in the military's spending in the state. The Pentagon spends $36 billion on salaries and contracts in California and employs 275,000 people here, according to state government figures.

The threat to the state is that "if the utility of a base is diminished, it can easily move somewhere else," said Loren Thompson, an expert on the base-closure process at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

Burt McChesney, consultant to the Assembly Select Committee on National Defense, Technology and Jobs, said he has never seen the military so involved in land-use planning issues.

"It's reflective of the stress of a heavily populated, rapidly growing state, and declining options for the military," McChesney said. California must do its share to accommodate the Pentagon's concerns, he said. "If we don't make those accommodations, there are other states that will."

William Jefferds, a retired Army general who directs state efforts to keep bases open, said state and local officials must work together so a growing population does not force out the military.

Jefferds recalled a trip to Camp Pendleton, where community members told him that real estate agents won't show homes during Marine artillery practice.

"Encroachment is a moderate-to-severe problem, and we're trying to catch it now so it doesn't become worse," Jefferds said. "Encroachment has become a part of the base-closure debate."

In the case of the sprawling Tejon Ranch, the state's largest privately owned property, Betancourt requested that Schwarzenegger ask the statewide planning office to devise a regional strategy to consider Centennial and two other projects planned for the ranch along Interstate 5 in Kern and Los Angeles counties.

Currently, counties may meet voluntarily to discuss a regional planning issue, but that cooperation is not legally required.

The military's pressure for a regional solution has created unusual alliances. Environmental organizations, often at odds with the armed services, share the military's desire to limit development of land that is open space. By contrast, some conservative lawmakers who generally support the military are critical of Betancourt's letter.

"It seems unrealistic to me to create new processes and governance to address military issues and concerns," said Kern County Supervisor Jon McQuiston.

Schwarzenegger has avoided taking sides. In reply to the admiral's letter, a spokesman said the governor-elect would bring all parties together, including environmentalists who see the ranch as a key wildlife habitat.

"If these negotiations are a success," H. D. Palmer said, "they could serve as a template to resolve these types of complex land management issues in the future."

One option, military officials say, is to move Centennial -- planned for perhaps 70,000 residents and 13 million square feet of commercial space -- from the western tip of the Antelope Valley in Los Angeles County to another part of the ranch 20 miles north in Kern County.

Tejon Ranch officials laughed off that suggestion and said the admiral's letter was aimed more at political maneuvering than at military preparedness or good land-use planning. Now, Robert Stine, the chief executive of the ranch, said he and Betancourt have agreed to meet to discuss their differences.

"We're getting together in a few weeks and we'll talk it through, and I'm sure we'll find a solution," Stine said.

Already, the Legislature has strengthened the military's hand. In 1999, it created the California Defense Retention and Conversion Council, partly to study strategies for the long-term protection of lands adjacent to bases. Last year, it passed a law requiring local governments to consider the effect of new developments on military facilities.

"The military likened their flight corridors to highways, and said that if they can't fly them, then their bases are just parking lots," said Detwiler, the legislative consultant.

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