(Clockwise) Bren: courtesy of
Irvine Co.; Agran by Davis Barber;
Cox by Jack Gould; Kogerman
by David KawashimaThe county's decade-old plan to build an international airport at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station is dead. Measure W—which backers said would give Orange County a central park on the order of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park—finished it forever.
But on March 6, just one day after W passed with 57.8 percent of the vote, U.S. Congressman Chris Cox (R-Newport Beach) announced the U.S. Navy would dispose of the El Toro base "by means of a public sale." This action raises numerous questions:
What the hell does this mean? It means the Irvine Co. wins again. They won because they have direct access to President George W. Bush and they own Cox, who claims he brokered the deal with the Navy. The Irvine Co. also owns all the land that surrounds the base. Hell, development of the Irvine Spectrum was the main reason the Marines bugged out of El Toro in the first place. When it comes time for the Navy to divide up El Toro, the Navy will go first to the Irvine Co.
But mostly it means democracy was killed. Some residents may have voted for Measure W simply to kill the airport—indeed, one anti-airport activist recently wrote, "A park might be nice, but it's not high priority. The airport is DEAD! That's all that matters." But that's cynical. Many voted for Measure W because they want a giant park at El Toro for the entire county to enjoy. They're screwed.
But Measure W is now county law. How can the Navy do this? One word: loopholes. Much of the legal language in Measure W comes straight from the county's pro-development General Plan: "Areas identified as Open Space . . . are not necessarily committed to permanent open-space uses," states Measure W. "Certain property within the Open Space category is committed, through public or private ownership, to remain as open space, but other property, due to market pressures to serve a growing county population, may ultimately be developed in other ways."
"May ultimately be developed in other ways"? Pro-airport attorney Barbara Lichman first identified that language as evidence that nothing in Measure W guarantees the Great Park, and we wrote about it during the campaign.
Why did park proponents allow Measure W to go to the voters without guarantees? According to leading park proponent Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, guarantees weren't necessary. In response to a Weekly story on the subject, Agran acknowledged that he, too, was concerned "about special interests teaming up with craven politicians to dismember or privatize large chunks of the Great Park." But he believed such a scenario was "not likely to happen."
Agran added that the Great Park would be "made all the more enjoyable if some carefully planned and carefully controlled human-scale commercial development is permitted." But he did not explain how citizens might insist that development stay a "human scale."
So who do we blame for this outrage? The first instinct is always to go after the county, Newport Beach pro-airport activists, the Irvine Co. and Chris Cox. But the real blame must sit squarely with the Great Park activists. Anyone in particular? We already know Agran was, at best, duped into thinking Measure W guaranteed the Great Park. But then there's Bill Kogerman and the group Taxpayers for Responsible Planning. Kogerman and TRP have been in bed with developers for years. A couple of years ago, they backed developing the old Laguna Beach Treasure Island trailer park into a luxury resort—a use staunchly opposed by locals. When the Weekly's R. Scott Moxley pointed this out ("This Is War?" July 30, 1999), he was widely denounced as "crazy."
According to the anti-airport website www.eltoroinfo.org, these activists have pretty much already given up on the Great Park: "The Navy and Congressman Cox are clear that they expect the county to come up with a non-aviation plan or the property will be sold for non-aviation purposes," says the site, which at no time expresses any anger or hesitancy about the Navy selling El Toro. "THE AIRPORT IS DEAD, but we might end up with a park that is smaller than the full 4,700 acres, if portions are sold for commercial use."
Could we have seen any of this coming? Sure. In retrospect, there were plenty of signs. Five days before the March 5 election, Fifth District Supervisor Tom Wilson undercut the entire Great Park campaign, telling The Orange County Registerthat the county ought to consider another non-aviation plan besides the Great Park.
But far more telling was the moment a year ago when residents began seeing Agran and Kogerman—whom insiders often described as adversaries who fought each other as vigorously as they fought the airport—appearing together as a united front. Here was the arrogant, conservative, pro-development Kogerman and the liberal, slow-growth leader Agran suddenly touting the Great Park in unison—just a few months after activists close to Kogerman blasted Agran (in an Oct. 10, 2000, Times story by Jean O. Pasco) as an "irritant" who had the potential to destroy the anti-airport coalition.
Were there other signs? Plenty. Think back to the Sept. 17, 2001, board meeting. That was when the three-member airport majority was finally, after years of delays, going to approve the county's airport plans. But out of nowhere, a "confused" Supervisor Jim Silva voted to put the airport on the ballot again. Fellow airport boosters Cynthia Coad and Chuck Smith were shocked—Coad ordered an immediate recess. But Silva's vote stood—until the next day, when he backtracked.
But the damage was done. Silva's vote delayed the acceptance of the airport plan by a month, which in turn pushed the Navy's date for handing over the El Toro deed from March to April of this year.
That's why Silva's vote—then widely dismissed as merely stupid—now looks brilliant. In delaying by one month the Navy's handover of El Toro to the county, it preserved through the March 5 vote the Irvine Co.'s relationship (through Chris Cox) to the Navy Department. Had Silva not caused the delay, the Navy would have given the county the base deed before the March election, and Measure W would be the law of the land. But the Navy is not bound by Measure W.
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Because of the delay, they said they'd wait until next month. Now it looks like the county is out of luck.
What does this mean for the Great Park that we just voted for? As things stand now, it's gone. The developers drooling over a chance to grab a chunk of the base want to build houses and condos, not art museums or botanical gardens. There will be parks at El Toro—because developers know nearby open space increases property values—but nothing on the scale of the Great Park. So what's going to be built at El Toro? At this point, that's anyone's guess. The Navy has already said they'll sell the base for "mixed use" development, and that means pretty much everything. Look for lots of commercial and housing development—and all the increased traffic and pollution that brings.
Chances are there will be a park there—just not the grand park everyone voted for.
Who's ultimately going to end up with the land? Simply put, the Navy will sell the land to whatever Irvine Co. it wants to.