The Great Surplus

Photo by Jack GouldAs long as county officials were considering building an international airport at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, the federal government said the county would get the 4,738-acre base for free. But within hours of the March 5 vote committing the county to a Great Park instead of a big airport, the Navy Department began suggesting it might instead sell the land.

Now, sources close to talks between the city of Irvine—chief advocates for the park—and the Navy Department say the suggesting is over. The Navy is close to carving El Toro into six to eight parcels and then selling each in a public sale to the highest bidder.

The Navy has insisted that any El Toro sale would be carried out within the confines of Measure W. Approved by voters on March 5, Measure W seemed to require construction of a Great Park, but that law's loose language allows for a wide variety of non-aviation land uses at El Toro.

Auctioning off El Toro in such a piecemeal fashion imperils the Great Park: no one buying million-dollar land is likely to build a park on it. It also effectively kills Irvine's counterproposal to sell 440 acres of current strawberry fields south of El Toro's main north-south runways to residential and commercial developers. Money from that sale would go to the Navy, which would then hand the base to Irvine, which would begin building the park.

But Irvine planning insiders speculated the city still has options. After annexing the base next year, Irvine could use its zoning power to significantly restrict all parcels, requiring each developer to surrender land for the park in exchange for any development.

“The Navy wants to sell the property as quickly as possible,” said a source close to the Navy who requested anonymity. “Basically, they just want to get rid of it.”

Why the change of heart at the Pentagon?

“During the Clinton administration, they were just giving bases away for free, but not anymore,” said the source. “Cleanup costs have been high. Plus, there's a new administration in Washington, and they have to be ready for the next round of base closures in 2005. They're getting pressure to move the bases.”

And by “move,” our source means “sell.” Last month, Assistant Secretary of the Navy H.T. Johnson told the federal General Services Agency (GSA) that his department was ready to go Century 21 on base closures.

“The successful negotiated sale of the former Department of Defense Housing Facility, Novato, California, and more recently, the former Naval Regional Medical Center, Oakland, California (Oak Knoll), has made great strides in the area of public sales for the Department,” he wrote. “We were very pleased to see the 'For Sale' signs go up on 240 acres of valuable residential-quality property at the former Marine Corps Air Station, Tustin, California.”

The future El Toro sale would most closely resemble Tustin. There, 235 of the base's 1,600 acres are available for purchase now through the GSA. Called “Tustin Vistas,” the land is slated for residential use, including townhomes, one-story duplex units and multifamily apartments.

“When the property at Tustin went up, the Navy was shocked at the number of buyers,” said our source.

The Navy wants a deal ready to go by the end of May. If it gets its way, which is almost a certainty, the base that was considered so vital just a few years ago will be in the hands of private developers within months. And the Great Park? That'll go the way of all Navy surplus.

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