Annexation OK Could Be Start of Great Park

Times Staff Writer

A vote this week on Irvine's bid to annex the closed El Toro Marine base could clear the way for construction of parks, homes and businesses on a site that has been the focus of bitter debate for a decade.

After 10 years, four referendums and a litany of lawsuits, voters last year agreed to kill plans for a commercial airport on the 4,700-acre former base, clearing the way for Irvine to build a complex of sports parks, open space, 3,600 homes and 3 million square feet of commercial and industrial space. The Local Agency Formation Commission is expected Wednesday to approve the annexation.

"It is a really historic achievement," said Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, one of the architects of the Great Park plan. "It will transform our community, just like Central Park transformed New York City."

Under Irvine's plan, nearly 3,900 acres would be dedicated to wildlife habitat, golf courses, sports parks and other public uses, making it one of the largest park complexes in the country.

The Navy, which still owns the land, plans to auction it off in four parcels early next year.

Developers must agree to deed large portions to the city for public use in exchange for rights to build on the remainder.

Irvine officials estimate that the city needs $372 million to build roads, utility systems and other infrastructure on the former base. The city proposes to raise $200 million through developer fees and an additional $172 million through bond sales that will be financed by tax assessments on property owners in the Great Park.

The success of the plan depends on whether the developers will agree to Irvine's fees, a LAFCO staff report said. Developers who do not agree will face stricter limits on how much they can build. The city has the flexibility, for example, to allow from 225 to 3,600 homes.

Irvine officials, however, said they are confident developers will opt to pay higher fees in exchange for a greater development. Agran said that groundbreaking could be as soon as next fall and that most of the development could be completed within five years.

But first, the city must annex the base. Most observers expect the approval to sail through.

When it does, it will mark a relatively quiet conclusion to a decadelong battle over El Toro's reuse that pitted south Orange County against north and stirred a debate over the region's long-term air transportation needs.

The battles began almost immediately after the U.S. Department of Defense announced El Toro's closure in 1993. Proponents of a commercial airport passed an initiative in 1994 that called for an airport at El Toro.

A measure to repeal that decision failed in 1996, but Agran and other airport opponents successfully backed another ballot measure in 2000 that required a two-thirds majority vote for public projects such as airports and jails. A judge ruled the measure unconstitutional.

Finally, last year Orange County voters passed a ballot measure that zoned most of the base for parks and open space.

Along the way, there were several lawsuits. Most recently, airport backers who challenged the Navy's environmental analysis of the base settled their complaint: The Navy agreed to conduct further studies. The group also filed a similar lawsuit against Irvine's environmental report. A court hearing is scheduled for December.

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