Mayor Jerry Sanders announced Wednesday he will take no position on the November airport ballot measure, saying that the military should decide on its own, free of outside influence, whether it wishes to cede a chunk of its land in order to house a new commercial airport.

The mayor endorsed projections that Lindbergh Field will reach its capacity sometime after 2015 and begin to cramp the local economy. He acknowledged that three local military installations recently studied are the only viable sites for a future international airport. However, Sanders said none of those bases are currently available and that local officials should “continue to be strong and supportive of [the military’s] presence here.”

“Whichever base the airport authority selects and places on the ballot, the reality is that our region’s ability to pursue a new airport site will ultimately depend on the decisions made by the Pentagon,” Sanders said. “That is why I will not be taking a position on the airport authority’s ballot measure, but will be working as your mayor to maintain a constructive dialogue with the military.”

If the military’s priorities change, Sanders said, he will be ready to seize the opportunity and advocate for a new airport at the given site.

The mayor’s announcement came two days after an airport authority committee authored draft language for a November ballot initiative that would ask voters whether San Diego government officials should make every effort to persuade Congress and the military to hand over 3,000 acres of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar for an new commercial airport by 2020.

With some of the region’s congressional delegation opposing the Miramar proposal and others staying quiet, airport backers have turned to Sanders to pick up the cause should the November ballot proposal be successful. Although Sanders agreed with many of the baseline assumptions trumpeted by airport supporters, he gave no indication he would lobby the defiant military to abandon a chunk of Miramar.

Two airport authority members who had high hopes for Sanders’ involvement in their cause said they were encouraged by the mayor’s stance. But the mayor indicated that he would back a differently worded measure.

“I think I could have supported, and I could still support, language that says when the military makes a different decision on one of the military bases, that we would engage them in a conversation about that specific base,” Sanders said.

The ballot language approved by the airport authority goes before the full board June 5 for final approval and still could be altered. The final measure will go before voters in November and culminate the three-year site-selection process that the airport authority was created to undertake.

Sanders and his aides were surprised at what he characterized as “strong wording” in the draft language calling for local government officials to essentially lobby federal officials in Congress and the Pentagon to open up Miramar.

“I think some elected officials aren’t going to really appreciate that,” Sanders said.

Sanders’ carefully crafted decision illustrates the larger conflict between the business community’s desire to accommodate a new airport while maintaining the military’s existing presence. City officials, their paid consultants and the business community actively lobbied for years to preserve the region’s military installations; they celebrated the moment last year when all the region’s bases survived the latest round of closures.

“The military has protected its bases, and in the long-term, this fact may be our saving grace,” Sanders said.

At the same time, city leaders and the business community have also warned that the lack of a new airport will devastate the local economy, as passengers and cargo alike will be squeezed out by a constrained Lindbergh Field. As the authority has turned its gaze to bases, military officials have warned that they can’t and won’t make space for a commercial airport.

Acknowledging a new airport’s importance but refusing to take a position on it is a “total waffle,” said Steve Erie, director of the Urban Studies and Planning program at University of California, San Diego.

“Sanders is trying to placate both sides,” Erie said. “And that is not leadership on this issue. You have to take a stand.”

When new airports were built in Denver, Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth, mayors put their political capital on the line in the face of community opposition, Erie said. Airports were eventually built in those cities because mayoral leadership enabled coalition building.

“This is a place that wants to have it both ways,” Erie said. “And it will wind up with nothing.”

Two airport authority members who support the Miramar initiative, Paul G. Nieto and William D. Lynch, were encouraged by Sanders’ position. They acknowledged that the mayor has other immediate issues facing him, and said they don’t expect Sanders to be a cheerleader for the ballot initiative.

His vital role, they said, will come if voters approve the measure.

“I would not expect him to get out in front of the issue,” Nieto said. “The only elected officials that I would expect out in front of it are those who are opposed to it. … He respects and values and the military and wants to maintain a dialogue. That’s absolutely vital for us.”

Lynch said Sanders’ position is clearly a boost – even if the mayor isn’t taking a formal position. Sanders’ acknowledgement of the need to replace Lindbergh Field is important, Lynch said.

“We’ve got people like (U.S. Rep.) Duncan Hunter saying we don’t have a problem,” he said. “That is a hell of a difference. [Sanders] is just trying to be as kind and gentle about it as possible.”

Indeed, the mayor did applaud the airport authority for evaluating all the possible sites in the region. But he didn’t appear keen to the idea of lobbying the military for the time being.

“We need to be listening to what they are telling us, and that is: now is not the right time,” Sanders said.

It is realistic, he said, to believe that a local military base could be closed sometime in the future, as many San Diegans never expected to see the Naval Training Center closed in the 1990s. He wasn’t so sure when that would happen.

“Some of us,” Sanders said, “may not live to see the airport actually working.”

Please contact the reporters directly at andrew.donohue@voiceofsandiego.org or rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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