Friday, July 21, 2006 | Unhappy with the airport ballot language voters will see in November, a group of San Diego business leaders is pushing to reword the initiative in a last-minute effort to corral the vital financial and political support of the region’s diverse business interests.

The behind-the-scenes work comes at a precarious time for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, which has so far received only a chilly response from the business leaders that are expected to champion the Miramar project. No elected officials – save for one who also serves on the authority – have supported the idea.

The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors is slated to decide whether to endorse the airport plan when it meets next week. The critical endorsement has been in question since the chamber’s public policy committee – viewed as a barometer for the board – voted last week to oppose the airport authority’s ballot measure.

“There’s undoubtedly discussion going on about whether that language can be more precise, more clear and not beg more questions than answers,” said Malin Burnham, a local real estate magnate who has advocated for the authority’s three-year long airport search.

A copy of draft language circulating among business leaders proposes to eliminate any idea that military fighter jets and commercial aircraft would share airspace, a heavily studied concept that airport authority officials have since abandoned. It would also force another countywide airport vote if the military eventually did cede Marine Corps Air Station Miramar to the airport authority.

If a change in the ballot language is made, it must happen soon. The authority must submit its ballot question to the county registrar by Aug. 11. The authority meets twice next week and doesn’t have another meeting scheduled until September. The ballot question has not been scheduled for public discussion.

“I think there will be a scurry to maybe do exactly what is rumored,” said Joe Craver, airport authority chairman. “But so far, from my point of view, I’m not aware of anything that’s scheduled.”

The maneuvering reflects the divisiveness of the airport question in a region whose economy relies heavily on military spending. The defense industry is San Diego’s second largest industry. At the same time, local business leaders insist an inability to expand Lindbergh Field will eventually constrain the local economy.

Business leaders who advocated to keep the military at Miramar during the most recent round of base closures are now faced with a decision that military leaders have suggested could sever their long-standing ties to the region.

The movement among business leaders could change key details of the ballot measure – but not the chosen site, Miramar.

Burnham and other business leaders criticize the authority’s ballot question for being misleading. They say the ballot language suggests that joint use works at Miramar, even though the authority itself has conceded it won’t.

The ballot language asks whether the authority should “work to obtain approximately 3,000 of 23,000 acres” at Miramar for a commercial airport.

But Marine Corps officials say 15,000 acres of the base isn’t developable because of environmental considerations and mountainous topography. Both Burnham and Steve Cushman, the chamber public policy member who made the motion to oppose the authority plan, cited that as a reason for their aversion to the current ballot question.

Cushman, a Scripps Ranch resident, said the airport authority really wants 3,000 acres of the 8,000 usable acres at Miramar.

“That’s not joint use. That’s: ‘We want you out,’” he said.

One proposed draft of ballot language that has circulated among business leaders eliminates references to acreage – and all other provisions that were attached. Instead, it asks whether the authority and other local government officials should work with the military “concerning the long-term future of military operations at Miramar.”

It provides for another countywide election to approve a specific airport plan if Miramar ever became available. It eliminates all vestiges of joint use.

The authority began studying the joint military and civilian use of Miramar earlier this year, producing an airport plan estimated to cost $6.9 billion to $7.7 billion that would have built two commercial runways along the two existing runways at the Marine Corps base.

Military fighters would train in the same airspace as commercial aircraft. The authority’s consultants said the plan would work, but admitted it was unprecedented. The military said it was simply unsafe.

But after the authority chose Miramar, its board members backed off joint use. The plan would force military fighter jets over several local neighborhoods, subjecting 10,765 homes to high levels of noise, exceeding a criterion that was used to exclude other sites.

“Nobody desires joint air use,” Burnham said, “even though the consultants said it is feasible.”

He said he had spoken with board members William D. Lynch and Paul G. Nieto. Neither returned calls Thursday.

Xema Jacobson, one of two board members to oppose the Miramar vote, said she liked the draft language circulating in the business community.

“I could live with that,” she said.

Two business advocacy groups have already postponed their decisions until after the ballot language is submitted: the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. and Biocom, a life sciences association.

Biocom’s public policy committee canceled its vote scheduled for July 21 because of the possibility that the ballot language would change, said Jimmy Jackson, Biocom’s vice president of public policy.

“I felt there was enough conversation out there in space that the language might be changed – or there might be various parties going to the authority requesting a change,” Jackson said. “I was hearing too much out there.”

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