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Thursday, May 11, 2006 | The U.S. Navy’s top civilian repeated the military’s objections to the use of area military bases for a new commercial airport, while suggesting the weighty airport issue had the potential to cause a schism between the region’s civilian and military leadership.

Speaking Wednesday morning to a meeting of defense contractors at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter called the airport authority’s site-selection process “illogical” and said the search is passing over reasonable alternatives in favor of pursuing Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

“We recognize there is a need to work some of the issues with Lindbergh Field,” Winter said at the meeting of the San Diego Military Advisory Council, a local military advocacy group. “But I worry about the pursuit of options to the exclusion of others.”

Asked later whether the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority is excluding specific options, Winter said it wasn’t his place to promote any specific non-military sites.

“I’m just suggesting it’s not a productive path to insist on an option that’s not going anywhere,” Winter said.

Winter’s 27-minute speech was warmly welcomed with a standing ovation from the group of defense contractors, who splintered in 2004 from a similar group within the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce over the chamber’s support for including military sites in the airport site-selection process.

Winter identified the airport issue – and the airport authority’s focus on Miramar – as a potential wedge between the region’s civilian and military communities, although it isn’t clear what effect that could have in a region where the two are dependent upon one another.

“I really don’t want to see this set of issues create a schism,” Winter said. “We have had such a great relationship over the last 100 years.”

Winter toned down his rhetoric in a press conference following the breakfast, saying he doesn’t worry about a split, that the military is engrained in the local residents’ hearts and souls. But he also said he was bothered that local military officials had to spend so much time addressing the airport issue.

The airport authority, which is drawing close to completing its search for a solution to future air passenger capacity constraints at Lindbergh Field, is examining three military sites as possible homes for a new international airport.

But the plans would require commercial airlines to share airspace with military training pilots, something the military has called unsafe. On Monday, the authority plans to release in-depth studies of each site: Miramar, Naval Air Station North Island and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

Several airport authority members have identified the military bases as being the only viable options within 60 miles of downtown San Diego. But commercial use of any base would require the consent of the Pentagon or an act of Congress.

Winter strongly questioned whether any political will exists in Washington to enable the closure of a San Diego-area base, saying the role of the region’s bases was affirmed by the most recent round of Pentagon base closures in 2005. Getting Congress on board, Winter said, “would be an amazing feat.”

Winter highlighted the Navy’s increasing reliance on San Diego evidenced by that base-closure round. The Navy has plans to station its first four littoral combat ships – a new ship designed for close-shore support – in San Diego, Winter said, and is similarly shifting three submarines and a group of minesweeping ships here.

“It is a long-term commitment on the part of the Navy to be here,” Winter said.

Some airport authority members have repeatedly said they want to have a creative dialogue with the military, to come up with a solution that would benefit both parties. Under such a scenario, they say, the authority could theoretically build infrastructure for the military in exchange for land for an airport.

But Winter reasserted the military’s objection to what some authority members have characterized as a “win-win scenario.”

“The view of a win-win solution is inconsistent with what we’d view as even being marginally acceptable,” he said.

Three members of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority attended: Xema Jacobson, Mary Teresa Sessom and Robert L. Maxwell. Though they constitute the bloc of authority members who are averse to the study and use of military sites, at least two other board members – Paul G. Nieto and Chairman Joe Craver – were on vacation.

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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