Irvine won permission Wednesday to annex the closed El Toro Marine base -- a decisive moment in a decade-long debate over how to use the vast swath of valuable land.
The Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission's decision virtually ensures that homes, businesses and parks -- and not a commercial airport -- will be built on the 4,700-acre former base.
"This is a historic moment for Irvine and the county of Orange," Irvine City Manager Allison Hart said after the morning meeting in Santa Ana. "This is a critical step that allows us to move forward."
Early next year, the Navy is scheduled to auction off the land, except for a 1,000-acre parcel already set aside for a wildlife reserve, to developers.
Under Irvine's plan, developers will be asked to pay $200 million in fees to fund construction of roads, utility lines and other infrastructure and to convey large portions of their land to Irvine for parks and other public uses.
In exchange, the developers will receive rights to build up to 3,600 homes and 3 million square feet of commercial and industrial space on the remainder of the land. In all, Irvine officials expect about 80% of the entire property to remain open space.
Construction could begin late next year, and build-out is expected by 2015.
The commission voted 5 to 2 in favor of annexation. The panel, which approves local boundary changes, is composed of members appointed by local elected officials and includes two county supervisors.
Supervisor Chuck Smith, a longtime supporter of a commercial airport at El Toro, voted against the annexation. He was joined by commission Chairwoman Arlene Schafer, who is also president of the Costa Mesa Sanitary District board. He challenged Irvine's strategy, which assumes developers will agree to the infrastructure fees and to deliver nearly 1,400 acres of land to the city for public use.
"What if those things don't happen?" Smith said. "Who is going to pay for it? Irvine? The county of Orange?"
Irvine planners said developers will have a strong incentive to follow the city's plan because the alternative is to accept drastic limits on how much they can build.
Wednesday marked a relatively quiet conclusion to a debate that raged for 10 years and bitterly divided south and north Orange County.
Many in the north favored the redevelopment of El Toro as a commercial airport to lighten the load on John Wayne Airport. They were joined by Los Angeles officials concerned about growth at LAX who jumped into the fray this year by asking federal officials to lease the base to them for development as a commercial airport.
The issue also spawned four countywide initiatives. Measure W, passed last year, called for most of El Toro to be turned into open space. Shortly after, Orange County supervisors voted to stop planning for an airport and to support Irvine's annexation of the property.
On Wednesday, die-hard supporters of the airport proposal made up the overwhelming majority of the two dozen speakers who addressed the commission. They criticized Irvine's plans as impractical and untested.
Some questioned the plan's financial underpinnings. Irvine officials estimate that it will cost $372 million to build roads, utility systems and other infrastructure on the former base. In addition to the developer fees, $172 million through bond sales will be financed by special tax assessments on Great Park property owners. Property taxes and special assessments in the development will add up to nearly 2% of assessed valuation, among the highest levels in the state.
But consultants hired by LAFCO said that Irvine's "innovative" financing is based on sound concepts.
Robby Conn, a Newport Beach resident, retorted: "Why do we call it innovative? Because it is unproven."