Turbulent Fight Expected Over Miramar Airport Site

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority's vote yesterday seeking joint use of Miramar Marine Corps Air Station sets the electoral stage for epic battles over military readiness, noise, the risk of accidents and the future of Lindbergh Field.

Voters can expect five months of heated debate, as it was evident at yesterday's meeting that the passion surrounding the decades-old argument had lost none of its rancor.

One board member said the issue had "polarized" the community.

Anticipating the vote to put joint use of Miramar on the Nov. 7 ballot, opponents were gathering names before the meeting to use in their campaign. Supporters said the matter comes down to a short-sighted view of air transportation needs versus a long-term vision.

The board considered three ideas to live with Lindbergh Field until the military voluntarily makes Miramar available. But in the end, airport authority members voted 7-2 for joint use of the military base as the preferred site to replace Lindbergh.

Military figures denounced the civilian airport proposal in some of the most vehement language they've ever used. Others said the notion is unworkable without forcing residents out of their homes or evicting the Marine Corps.

Less than three hours after the decision, thousands of San Diegans received a councilman's electronic newsletter calling the proposal "futile."

But on the other side of the argument, Vista Mayor Morris Vance framed his support against an often repeated slogan about the opposition from top levels of the Pentagon.

"The part of `no' I don't understand, quite frankly, is their unwillingness to discuss it and their unwillingness to work with us," Vance said.

What looks impossible today could be more realistic in two decades as F-18 jets are phased out of Miramar, said board member Paul Peterson.

"We need to work proactively with the military to ... figure out a way to make Miramar work for both entities," said Peterson, a San Diego lawyer.

But first the authority needs a mandate from the public on its ballot proposition, an advisory measure since the airport agency has no authority over military installations.

In its original draft, the ballot text asked voters to decide whether elected officials should "make every effort to persuade Congress and the military" to give up a portion of Miramar for a commercial airport, providing there was no impact on military readiness.

The new version of the text asks merely whether government officials and the authority itself should "work" toward that goal, completing "necessary Lindbergh Field improvements" as an interim step.

The remaining life of the 78-year-old airport was an issue at the beginning of the airport site-selection project in 2001 and at the end of yesterday's meeting.

Economists have projected the single runway at 661-acre Lindbergh Field will prove inadequate for passenger and air cargo needs as early as 2015, resulting in billions in lost visitor spending and sales. As demand outstrips supply, board member William Lynch said, travelers will experience a shortage of flights, long delays and higher ticket prices.

But Lemon Grove Mayor Mary Teresa Sessom said the region hasn't fully explored the options for extending Lindbergh's life.

"Focusing on something that is not available makes us lose sight of what we can do for this region," Sessom said.

That could include a second runway at Lindbergh, shifting cargo operations to general-aviation airports such as Brown Field and Montgomery Field, and high-speed rail connections to other Southern California airports.

Sessom and colleague Xema Jacobson offered three versions of a ballot measure to identify Miramar only as a potential civilian airport pending military cooperation.

"This has been a very polarizing issue in this community," said Jacobson, adding a solution could benefit from "a cooling-off period."

Each of their alternative ideas was voted down.

In two hours of other public testimony, the authority board got almost no support for joint use.

Rear Adm. Len Hering said the authority's technical consultants, who asserted joint use is feasible, lack "even the most basic understanding of how the military operates."

Contrary to hopes that activity at Miramar may wind down, Maj. Gen. Mike Lehnert told the board, "Miramar will be extremely busy for decades. ... There is no win-win option." A vote for joint use, Lehnert said, shows "a shocking disregard for public safety."

Many said Miramar should be out of the running because of the way it would force F-18s to use different airspace for field carrier landing practice. A new looping pattern over Tierrasanta, Scripps Ranch, Mira Mesa, Kearny Mesa and Clairemont would expose thousands to excessive noise and add 8,700 residents to the "accident potential zone."

San Diego Councilman Jim Madaffer, who represents Tierrasanta, sent an e-mail message to constituents after the board vote, saying the region should consider a second runway at Lindbergh. He called a community meeting for next week to "stop the Miramar madness."

The difficulty in finding consensus was illustrated by three San Diego City Council members at the meeting offering three different opinions.

Tony Young, a board member, said he was making an "unpopular decision" for Miramar in the best interests of the city as a whole.

Kevin Faulconer, who represents Point Loma, spoke of the unsuitability of Lindbergh Field without explicitly supporting Miramar, while Brian Maienschein, whose district includes Miramar, said joint use would be "catastrophic."

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