Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006 | San Diego County voters rejected the Miramar ballot proposal Tuesday, bringing an unceremonious end to the airport authority’s three-year-long site search while affirming the military’s political power and presence in San Diego.

Supporters of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority conceded defeat early, soon after absentee ballots showed them trailing 62 percent to 37 percent. By 1 a.m., with nearly 70 percent of the county’s precincts reporting, the 25-point margin was holding steady.

The concession marked the conclusion of a $17 million process intended to definitively resolve questions about Lindbergh Field’s capacity to handle future growth. And it left Miramar proponents and opponents asking the same question: What next?

“I think that the voters of San Diego County have sent a very strong message to the airport authority that Miramar is not the answer,” said retired Rear Adm. Bruce Boland, who led the opposition. “They haven’t said we don’t need another airport, but that Miramar is not the answer.”

The decision not to press military officials to make room for an international airport at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar turns attention to Lindbergh Field improvements – a terminal and parking lot expansion is under development – while also putting the spotlight on the airport authority’s future. The conclusion of the site-selection process, which the airport authority was required by law to complete, left the young government agency with few political allies. State Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, is considering legislation that would reorganize or otherwise alter the authority’s structure.

“What I’m afraid of is that we may have missed an opportunity to resolve this issue of where the airport is going to be once and for all,” said Art Castanares, who helped craft the legislation creating the authority. “Instead we may have another two or five or 10 years of moving it from one agency to another and more half-hearted attempts to fix Lindbergh.”

At its inception, the debate appeared as if it would be based around San Diego’s long-term economic health. Instead, it became more of a battle between airport officials and the military – with the military winning out.

If nothing else, the airport authority’s lengthy search revealed that the region must either cope with future constraint problems at Lindbergh – and their projected economic impacts – or find a way to build a civilian airport at Miramar, said John Chalker, a leader of the Coalition to Preserve the Economy, a pro-Miramar political action committee.

“The airport authority has to focus on an expansion of Lindbergh Field,” Chalker said, “and wait and see what the future brings us.”

Across the county Tuesday, voters cited a host of reasons for roundly rejecting the airport measure. But the deciding votes – those not motivated by proximity to either airport site – came down overwhelmingly in favor of the Marine Corps, a sympathetic entity in a nation at war and a region with strong economic ties to the defense industry.

Look to a rural fire station in Jamul, closer to Mexico than to Miramar or Lindbergh. Some late-day voters there hadn’t followed the daily developments of the authority’s site-selection program. Some thought the Unified Port of San Diego was leading the search. Regardless of jargon-laden details – noise patterns, accident potential zones, gross regional product and plans for a stealthy F-35 – they just thought the ballot proposal was a bad idea.

There was Sandy Wood, leaning against the back of a white pickup, talking about the military’s importance. She had voted no to a similar measure in 1994, and said voting no again was an easy decision.

“We did this before,” she said. “If [the military is] not going to give up the property, they’re not going to give up the property. You can’t have a free country without somebody protecting it. If the military says no, it’s not going to matter.”

There was Paul Sawyer, walking to his truck, blue baseball cap perched atop his graying hair. Voted no in 1994, he said, and voted no again on Tuesday. Why?

“That’s a Marine Corps base,” he said. “I want to see it stay that way.”

And what of the authority’s projections about Lindbergh Field hitting capacity? The studies showing the region could lose billions if a new airport isn’t built?

“Baloney,” Sawyer said.

Other voters fell along more predictable lines. With commercial jets roaring overhead in Point Loma, several voters said moving the airport to Miramar was the right thing to do. But some said they weren’t sure whether their votes would have any effect on an issue that’s bounced around San Diego for 50 years.

Ronnie Friedman-Barone, who lives in Point Loma at Liberty Station, said her vote for the Miramar proposal was a vote for peace.

“One of the reasons I’d really like to see it at Miramar, I’d love to see us be nation that eliminates war,” the 60-year-old Queens native said. “I’d love to see war go away.”

Then there was Susan Crowder, who lives and works in Point Loma. She voted for a Miramar airport in 1994 and did again Tuesday.

“It just makes sense,” she said. “There’s no room to expand over here.”

And if Lindbergh Field were expanded, Crowder said, she fears it would mean more airplanes flying over the house where she has lived the last two years.

In Tierrasanta, voters echoed similar concerns: Noise, quality of life. The difference: Point Lomans knew about the airport when they decided to live there, some said.

“I sure don’t want it at Miramar,” said Marsha Dolainski, a Clairemont resident and special education teacher at Tierrasanta Elementary. “Every time I fly out of Lindbergh it’s not crowded, except at Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

The vote was the county’s second try at acquiring the Marine Corps base. The first succeeded, winning 52 percent of the county’s vote. But that vote, led by San Diego hotelier Doug Manchester, happened in a different political and economic environment.

Back then, San Diego’s economy was weaker. The region’s post-recession unemployment levels hovered above 6 percent as voters went to the polls. Today, they’re just below 4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And the 1994 Miramar opposition struggled to compete with the political will and campaign funding that Manchester generated, said Steve Erie, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego.

Erie says 1994 was the best-case scenario for a Miramar move. Proponents had political momentum. They were facing a tangible problem: regional unemployment. And a round of Pentagon base closures was approaching.

“That’s the perfect storm for getting a new airport,” Erie says, “and you could only get 52 percent.”

Boland, the No on Prop A leader, said the two ballot measures had different intents. The 1994 vote asked whether the base should be used if the Marines left. Tuesday’s vote suggested the Marines should be persuaded to leave, he said.

“It’s a totally different situation,” Boland said.

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