Wednesday, July 12, 2006| A San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce committee voted Tuesday to recommend the chamber oppose the airport authority’s Miramar ballot language, shaking the foundation of what was expected to be a pillar of support for the new airport proposal.

The public policy committee, which is widely viewed as a barometer for the chamber’s board of directors, voted 9-4 to oppose the November ballot proposal that aims to move the region’s international airport to the Marine Corps base. The 51-member board typically follows the committee’s direction and will decide at its July 27 meeting whether to support the proposal.

The chamber has long supported the search for a new airport, helping form ASAP21, an alliance of business advocacy groups that has spent three years advocating against Lindbergh Field as the long-term solution for San Diego’s air capacity needs. Through that time, the chamber and ASAP21 have been interconnected. Three chamber officials sit on ASAP21’s board of directors. ASAP21’s president sits on the chamber’s board.

If the chamber follows the committee’s recommendation and opposes the airport plan, it would be a major blow to pro-Miramar supporters, who are counting on the chamber’s endorsement. The chamber’s endorsement would likely mobilize a network of business interests and campaign donors to fight for the ballot measure. It’s long been assumed the funds to support the airport authority’s ballot measure would come largely from the business community.

The public policy committee typically takes the lead on political issues for the chamber. Out of 40 to 50 formal chamber positions each year, the board only contradicts the committee a couple of times, said Scott Alevy, the chamber’s vice president of public policy and communications.

Its decision came as a surprise to those who have supported a new airport – and worked with the chamber to promote it.

Without the endorsement, “I don’t think [the ballot measure] is DOA, but boy, the hill sure got a lot steeper,” said John Chalker, ASAP21’s president. “And it’s already steep enough.”

The airport has been a divisive issue in the business community. On one side, are those who say a new airport is vital to keep the region’s economic engine chugging. On the other side, are defense-related businesses dependent on the military’s presence for their livelihoods.

“I think it’s very reflective of this issue in San Diego in general,” Alevy said. “This is going to be a very contentious, a very tight vote in November.”

That division was reflected in the chamber’s lengthy airing of the airport endorsement for its members. Three committees supported the ballot language. Two didn’t, including the public policy committee on Tuesday.

“From the outside, [the vote] may look like a blip,” said Lee Burdick, a public policy committee member and general counsel for Jimsair Aviation Services. “From the inside, this is one of the most difficult decisions the chamber has dealt with.”

The fight has been brewing for years. The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority has spent the last three years scouring the region for potential airport sites, whittling a list of 32 sites down to one: Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. But the military says the land is not available and the region’s congressional leadership has sided with the Marines.

In its November ballot language, the airport authority asks voters whether it and other government officials should lobby the military for 3,000 of Miramar’s 23,000 acres to make room for a new international airport.

The airport authority projects the region will suffer great economic harm if a new airport isn’t constructed – something that would avert a predicted capacity crunch at Lindbergh sometime after 2015.

The chamber’s five committees have been sorting through that history. Each have had question-and-answer sessions with ASAP21 and the airport authority on one side; the U.S. Marine Corps and the San Diego Military Advisory Council on the other. Both sides have clearly sought the chamber’s endorsement. The Marines gave a tour of Miramar to two dozen chamber members. The airport authority responded with its own tour Monday, led by board Chairman Joe Craver.

The chamber isn’t the only business group struggling over support for the controversial airport initiative. The San Diego Economic Development Corp. – which also helped found ASAP21 – has so far held off on a decision, instead waiting for the language to be finalized.

Supporters should have known not to count on the chamber for support, said Steve Erie, a professor of political science at University of California, San Diego. He points to the chamber’s role in fighting a 1994 push toward Miramar as a reason.

“The truth of the matter is, when the military says jump, the San Diego chamber says: ‘How high?’” Erie said. “The minute the military speaks, they salute.”

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