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Tuesday, June 20, 2006 | Inextricably intertwined in the history of San Diego is the history of the U.S. Navy on the West Coast. From the Herculean efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt, later President Woodrow Wilson, Congressman William Kettner, and Assistant Secretary to the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Navy came to town in a very big way. With the opening of the Panama Canal the United States of America effectively became “bi-coastal,” and Teddy’s Great White Fleet grew into the dominant presence in the Pacific – some say his true motivation.

Since then San Diego has essentially been a “company” town. Much like coal mining in the Smokies or big oil in Texas. San Diego was, and to a large degree still is, ‘the Navy.’ Throughout the 20th century, and with unconditional local political support, San Diego gifted the Navy hundreds, if not thousands of acres, for exclusive military use.

After a century of U.S. Naval presence in the region, San Diego continues to work around the lands of the military et al., while urbanizing continues at high velocity. Back in 1908 when the Navy purchased its first piece of land, the Chollas Radio Tower site, the land use context and regional setting of San Diego was profoundly different from today. A trip to the San Diego Historical Society photo archives can send a San Diegan reeling with mouth agape at just how open it was back then.

So here we are today at the threshold of the future with respect to a credible civilian airport for the sixth (seventh?) largest city in the country. Unfortunately for the region, though, San Diego and the Navy conduct their land-use planning on separate and exclusive tracks. It’s no wonder we are up in arms, so to speak, about a new airport site.

At the risk of asserting a heretical statement, I offer the following consideration: We have outgrown the Navy. It’s a hard truth to hear especially during wartime, and from a native daughter of a WWII Navy Nurse Corps officer mother, and wounded Marine Raider father. But as is typical for the Navy, “highest and best” land use in the public interest is not within their purview.

They have an entirely different programmatic mission, as well they should.

Clearly the land on which certain military installations reside should come back to San Diego. Much of this acreage is no longer site-specific, use-specific, or even makes strategic military sense, even to the untrained civilian eye. By the close of WWII, it was clear that weapons and reconnaissance technology had eclipsed the need to “see” your enemy from a coastal emplacement. It follows that some 50 years later it will be all right, really, if the military relocates, redeploys, retreats to the desert where a far less unencumbered setting will serve the mission far better.

With the advent of the BRAC process, we have seen a noble attempt by the Department of Defense to inventory sites all over the country to strategically tighten up our military and make the best use of land, personnel, and taxpayer dollars. Unfortunately, the very mention of BRAC strikes fear in the hearts of almost all stakeholders, and has become a hugely onerous and politicized process.

But here in San Diego, we’re running out of land, at least enough land to host a decent airport. Miramar is the last chance we have, the last ground truth to finally have a responsive, safe, and effective air transit center. If we can lift the veil of 50 years of political ennui and abjectly poor leadership, we can affect this into reality. After all it once was OUR land.

Vonn Marie May is a former chairwoman of the city of San Diego’s Historical Resources Board and is currently a trustee on the board of the California Preservation Foundation. Send a letter to the editor here.

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