The Morning Report
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Monday, June 5, 2006 | Thousands of pages of reports, three years of searching, countless hours of meetings and millions of dollars spent.
All for this: An 8 a.m. Monday meeting of a nine-member airport authority board with a collective eye focused on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar as the best site for the region’s next international airport.
The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority is widely expect to confirm Miramar as the culmination of its three-year search for a solution to the region’s air capacity crunch – forecasted to hit sometime after 2015.
Few surprises are expected. While a joint-use commercial and military airport at Miramar is widely viewed as the board’s consensus pick, questions remain about how the board will word the ballot question voters will see in November.
The Marines, for their part, are not going down without a fight. They launched their own public relations offensive Friday, taking more than a dozen journalists on an extensive tour of Miramar’s 23,000 acres. Marine officials’ message, repeated again and again, was a familiar refrain: A four-runway airport shared by commercial and military airplanes won’t work.
“You can have one of two things: A commercial airport or a Marine base,” said Maj. Gen. Michael R. Lehnert, the commanding general of the Marines’ West Coast installations. “But you can’t have both.”
When the Pentagon was looking to close military bases a year ago, Lehnert said, many local officials touted the benefits of the Marines staying put in San Diego. Now some of the same voices are saying the Marines should leave – or at least scoot over.
“What has changed in a year?” he asked.
Standing alongside an FA-18 Hornet outside an ordnance-loading area, Lt. Col. Duane Pinney, Miramar’s safety officer, criticized the airport authority for ignoring the Marines’ safety rules. They prohibit locating ordnance storage within 15,000 feet of a runway. The authority’s proposal would violate that rule, Pinney said, forcing jets to fly over bomb- and missile-storage areas.
The authority’s proposal would also require jets loaded with live ammunition to taxi much longer distances, past a passenger tower and jet-fuel storage areas, Pinney said.
“Any of their proposals just flat won’t work when it comes to ordnance,” Pinney said.
The joint-use proposal the board’s consulting team studied would send the Marines’ FA-18s training paths over a populated area, affecting more than 10,000 homes – exceeding a criteria that excluded other potential sites from consideration.
The proposal could also create serious conflicts with outgoing flights from nearby Montgomery Field, Pinney said.
Whether those issues arise Monday will be at the discretion of public speakers. The authority appears poised to make a decision.
But the largest questions stemming from that decision will remain unanswered for months – and perhaps years. Will voters approve Miramar? That answer comes on Election Day, Nov. 7.
The authority’s draft ballot language delegates responsibility to “San Diego County government officials” without being specific. The draft wording asks voters whether those officials should “make every effort to persuade Congress and the military to make available, by 2020, approximately 3,000 of over 23,000 acres at MCAS Miramar for a commercial airport.”
If voters say yes, will local political leaders effect the cooperation of a resistant Congressional delegation and a vehemently opposed military?
The Pentagon has objected to sharing land at the base, and a 1996 federal law prohibits commercial aircraft from using it. It would take an act of Congress to wrestle Miramar from the Pentagon’s control. And no local politician – from San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders to the region’s congressional delegation – has shown interest in championing the proposal.
That draft language, approved two weeks ago by the authority’s strategic planning committee, could change Monday. Ballot language has a 75-word limit, and only 71 words have been used. Board member William D. Lynch said he expects changes. But he also said he believes the substance will remain the same.
The board will have other options to consider. Board member Mary Teresa Sessom said she plans to introduce a substitute motion involving both Miramar and the existing airport at Lindbergh Field.
Sessom said Sanders laid the groundwork for her motion, which she described vaguely: “Something has to happen with existing facilities (at Lindbergh) and Miramar should be identified as a permanent long-term solution.”
Sanders has acknowledged the economic constraints posed by Lindbergh Field, but has said 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.
Sessom has been in the minority of board members voicing opposition to Miramar. Board member Xema Jacobson, who has also called for more study of Lindbergh Field, predicted her colleagues will pick a site but wait a week to allow legal counsel to review the ballot language.
“I hope all the tinkering gets done on Monday morning,” Jacobson said. “A violation of the Brown Act would taint this whole thing. I’m really hoping that there will be a discussion of things at the table then instead of behind closed doors.”
Has that happened?
“I have not discussed any language with fellow board members,” Jacobson said.