Tuesday, June 6, 2006 | After a contentious five-hour public meeting punctuated by boos, bickering and booming protests, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority chose Marine Corps Air Station Miramar as the best site for the region’s next international airport.

Over the military’s vehement objections, the 7-2 vote to replace Lindbergh Field culminated the extensive site-selection search the authority was created to undertake – a process that spanned its three-year existence and examined 32 potential sites. The Miramar airport plan, designed to address projections that San Diego will max out its air capacity sometime after 2015 at Lindbergh Field, is estimated to cost between $6.9 billion and $7.7 billion.

The decision about its future now belongs to voters, who will approve or reject the authority’s choice Nov. 7.

But as board members made their decision – long touted as the final solution to San Diego’s decades-old airport discussion – several admitted the ballot measure is an advisory vote and brings no guarantee that an international airport will ever be built at Miramar, even with voters’ approval. In 1994, county residents approved an advisory measure that identified Miramar for an airport if the military ever left.

When they go to the polls this time, voters will be asked whether the airport authority and other government officials should work to obtain 3,000 acres of the 23,000-acre Marine base for a commercial airport. The measure is based upon several contingencies. Necessary road improvements must be made, military readiness must be maintained without cost to the military, local taxes must not be used and necessary improvements must be made to Lindbergh Field in the meantime.

The language also requires overall noise impacts to be reduced, tackling a concern about the projected effects on 10,765 homes in neighborhoods near Miramar. That exceeded a threshold used to exclude other sites from consideration.

The authority rejected a proposal crafted by dissenting board members Mary Teresa Sessom and Xema Jacobson. They struck a somewhat conciliatory tone, identifying Miramar as the long-term solution, while requiring the region’s airports to first be maximized before turning to Miramar. Sessom said the proposal could have included building a second runway at Lindbergh, or potentially moving private jets or cargo traffic to smaller regional airports.

The approved ballot measure’s nuances reflect significant changes from the draft an authority committee approved last month. It gives the authority a role in the process. Previously, it had required “San Diego County government officials” to “make every effort to persuade Congress and the military” to fork over the land.

That was recast entirely. The revised measure says both the amorphous group of government officials and the authority itself should “work to obtain” the necessary land.

“We’re not aiming at any one guy,” said board member Paul A. Peterson, who introduced the ballot proposal. “We’re trying to get the attention of the people who have some power to do something.”

So far only one local official has stepped forward: San Diego City Councilman and authority board member Tony Young. City Councilman Kevin Faulconer also praised the board Monday, saying Lindbergh Field would never work in the future. But he didn’t explicitly pledge support for Miramar. Other key officials – from Mayor Jerry Sanders to four county supervisors to a majority of local congressional representatives – are either neutral or opposed.

Miramar neighbors and high-ranking military officials came out in force Monday to voice their opposition to the proposal that would put two new 24-hour-a-day commercial runways at the military base. Forty-five people spoke – 31 against Miramar, four in favor of joint use, six in favor of an East Miramar solution and four without conclusive opinions.

Opponents to joint use at Miramar took turns bashing the authority. Some booed speakers with divergent opinions. They called the process “a sham,” charged the authority with “bureaucratic arrogance” and said the board produced an “impossible solution.”

Rear Adm. Len Hering, Navy Region Southwest’s commander, accused the authority’s consulting team of lacking even a basic understanding of the military’s mission at Miramar.

“They assume away our mission and they inaccurately portray the facts,” Hering said.

Although the military has shared data with the authority, it has maintained a steadfast objection to joint civilian-military use of Miramar. Miramar’s safety director said the proposal ignores military safety rules, moving a bomb and missile storage area within 15,000 feet of a runway to accommodate the authority’s proposal. The Marines say commercial use would prevent fighter pilots from safely arming freshly loaded rockets.

Hering, San Diego’s Navy mayor, said he sympathized with the need to build a new airport. But, he said, “I will tell you: It will not be at Miramar in the next 20 years.”

No speaker boomed louder than U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, who ducked into the meeting long enough to tell the authority he was “really angry.” Filner, whose district includes Imperial County, has been a vocal supporter of the desert airport concept, even though it sits more than 100 miles from downtown San Diego.

“This proposal will be defeated,” Filner said. “And the authority will be right back where we started from – except your credibility will be zero.”

John Chalker, president of the Alliance in Support of Airport Progress in the 21st Century, a coalition of groups supporting a new airport, admitted joint use at Miramar won’t work today. But he said no one can say the same thing for 2020 – including the military. He chided the military’s lack of “a can-do spirit.”

The decision concluded the authority’s most important role in the site-selection process and jumpstarted a political engine that will be chugging throughout the summer. After the decision was made, Miramar opponents let loose their first salvos, with some politicians firing off e-mails decrying the choice.

“STOP THE MIRAMAR MADNESS ONCE AND FOR ALL,” San Diego City Councilman Jim Madaffer wrote in an e-mail to constituents.

“The Airport Authority’s joint use proposal … is nothing more than an attempt to cover the fact that the Authority has failed its mission and wasted millions of dollars in ‘user fees’ and taxpayer funds,” Assemblyman George Plescia, R-Mira Mesa, said in a news release.

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

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