Miramar Airport Backers Pick up Key Endorsement

A win is a win. That's the way Joe Craver, chairman of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, views the razor-edge vote by which the county's largest business group decided recently to back the Miramar airport ballot measure.

On July 27, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce's board of directors voted 19-18 to endorse the advisory measure that seeks public backing for a commercial airport on Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.

"I consider it a significant win," Craver said, in an interview last week. "Yes, it was a narrow margin. But there are a lot of winners who win by small margins. People remember who wins. They do not remember losers."

New-airport opponents, however, downplayed the significance of the endorsement.

It remains to be seen whether the backing of business leaders will translate into a win at the ballot box Nov. 7. On that day, San Diego County residents will get the chance to tell the airport authority whether or not it should try to negotiate a lease or purchase of 3,000 of Miramar's 23,000 acres for an airport ---- provided the Marines' mission wouldn't be compromised.

The Marines, who strongly oppose the ballot measure, have said repeatedly that any civilian or shared airport would compromise their mission.

Following a 3 1/2-year search for an airport site, the authority's board concluded in June that Miramar was the best location for a Lindbergh Field replacement.

The agency contends that Lindbergh, the nation's busiest one-runway airport and 20th-busiest overall, will run out of room to handle the county's air travel demand when the number of airline passengers approaches 25 million. More than 17 million passed through Lindbergh's gates last year and passenger demand is forecasted to reach 32 million by 2030.

But there are skeptics, among them a prominent economics professor at UC San Diego, who say the regional agency is overstating the urgency of the matter and that Lindbergh can continue serving San Diego County effectively for decades to come.

Some openly scoff at the need for a new airport as they consider the relative ease of boarding a plane at Lindbergh against the backdrop of long lines at airports such as Los Angeles International. Others have said businesses and developers support a new airport location so the Lindbergh site, which is on prime downtown property, can be developed.

It doesn't help the cause of Miramar-airport advocates that the military is by far the largest employer in the county and has close ties to the area's large defense-contracting industry, and there is widespread concern about harming that golden economic egg.

Add to that the natural aversion to airports among the hundreds of thousands who live in influential communities wrapped around Miramar, and it is hardly surprising, airport advocates say, that the proposal is encountering stiff opposition. There is also a dearth of support from big-name politicians.

Instead, the pro-Miramar airport folks seem to be gaining more enemies by the week. On July 26, three San Diego County supervisors publicly announced their opposition to the ballot measure.

Craver said he is "absolutely" concerned about the lack of endorsements by public officials.

"But I also know ---- I'm a realist ---- that airports and politicians do not mix," he said, saying that backing airports is a risky proposition for officials elected by people who don't want to live near the huge, noisy transportation facilities.

And, so, Craver said, winning an endorsement from the business group was huge.

The endorsement came as a surprise and disappointment to retired Rear Adm. Jack Batzler of Del Mar, board member and designated spokesman for the group Taxpayers for Responsible Planning, which opposes putting an airport at Miramar. But he said he wasn't worried that the endorsement might give momentum to the pro-Miramar airport campaign.

"My honest opinion is, it won't have much effect on the outcome," Batzler said. "People don't follow a chamber of commerce."

It remains to be seen whether other organizations will follow the chamber's lead. Several are preparing to take positions on the measure, including:

- The Alliance in Support of Airport Progress in the 21st Century (ASAP21). The business group that has been saying the county needs a large new airport is scheduled to take a formal position sometime this month on whether Miramar is the appropriate site, according to Chairman Dennis Burks, a former SeaWorld executive.

- San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. Spokeswoman Andrea Moser said her group of business leaders is scheduled to vote on the matter Sept. 12.

- San Diego North Economic Development Council. Gary Knight, president and chief executive officer, said the council plans to host a community forum on the Miramar ballot measure Sept. 7, although a location has yet to be picked. Then the council's 25-member board is scheduled to meet Sept. 14 to consider taking a position.

- San Diego County Taxpayers Association. Lani Lutar, president and chief executive officer, said her board expects to vote to take a stance Sept. 15.

Unlike the regional chamber, the taxpayer board has a policy of endorsing or opposing measures only if at least 60 percent of members agree, Lutar said. The other groups require simple majority votes.

John Chalker, a downtown San Diego businessman who supports the Miramar measure, suggested the close chamber vote reflects how divided San Diego County is on the issue.

"We expect a close vote publicly, and the chamber is a microcosm of the entire region," Chalker said.

There was a close vote when county residents weighed in on the concept in 1994. A bare majority ---- 52 percent ---- supported moving the airport there.

As far as Batzler, the retired rear admiral, is concerned, a bare-majority victory for the opposition would be hollow this time around. Batzler said a lopsided margin would end the push for a Miramar airport once and for all.

"I'd like to see us win 80 percent of the vote," he said. "It's important to me to send a message that, 'You guys need to take another look at the problem." They talk a good game, but I don't think they have really looked at all the options." In particular, he said, the airport board has not fully explored Brown Field/Otay Mesa.

Batzler said his political action committee, San Diego County Taxpayers for Responsible Planning, has raised more than $16,000 so far and has set a goal of raising $1 million to pay for airing television and radio ads and mailing brochures.

County campaign finance reports, which cover contributions through June 30, show that another opposition committee, Support Our Military ---- No On Miramar, raised $11,000 and that the pro-airport group, Coalition to Preserve the Economy, raised $46,000. Each group says it is aiming for $1 million.

"For everybody, it's going to be a tough environment for raising money," said Chalker, a member of the coalition's steering committee. He said the race for governor, the $37 billion infrastructure bond and initiatives on the ballot will make competition for campaign money intense.

Chalker and the airport authority contend that a much larger airport than Lindbergh ---- one with a pair of parallel 12,000-foot runways ---- is crucial to continued growth of the San Diego County economy, which, besides the military, is heavily dependant on the communications and biotechnology industries. Those industries are woven tightly into a global market which demands that products be shipped promptly by air, and airport officials warn some companies in those fields may pack up and leave town if Lindbergh cannot keep pace.

In a twist, however, just before the chamber vote, an official with a prominent company warned that it is the proposed Miramar airport that threatens to drive companies out of town.

Saying that Qualcomm might be forced to move its headquarters out of San Diego, Jim Callaghan, the wireless communication giant's vice president for real estate and facilities, sent a letter urging the chamber to oppose the Miramar measure. The July 26 letter was addressed to chamber Chairwoman Nikki Clay.

Callaghan said Qualcomm was concerned about "the uncertainty that surrounds the high tech and biotech community that surrounds Miramar today. With over 1.2 million square feet under construction and 4 million square feet already occupied, we are the largest property owner in Sorrento Valley."

Callaghan said the trend in the industry is to build tall buildings, 10 stories and higher, and a new airport could ground future expansion plans.

Not so, said Craver. He said airliners would take off to the south, not over the technology campus, and there would be no need for new building restrictions in Sorrento Valley.

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