San Diego Airport Authority, Military on Collision Course

Feb. 28--SAN DIEGO -- The agency looking to build a new international airport to accommodate San Diego County's future air travel needs appears headed for a collision with top military brass.

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority took one more step Monday toward a major skirmish with the military during a presentation of what a consultant says are workable concepts for airports on Camp Pendleton, Miramar Marine Corps Air Station and Naval Air Station North Island.

Just days after the Secretary of the Navy flatly rejected using any county bases for a commercial airfield, several authority board members refused to take no for an answer.

The presentation was made during a meeting of the authority's strategic planning committee, composed of four of nine board members. The panel forwarded the concepts to the full board.

The board is expected to decide March 6 whether to study the base airport concepts in greater detail, including one "out of the box" idea in which the authority would build a runway for the Marines at Pendleton in exchange for being able to use an existing military runway at Miramar. In the swap, the authority would carve an airport out of Miramar but leave the rest of the base in Marine hands.

The agency is studying whether to build a new airport to replace cramped Lindbergh Field or expand Lindbergh to meet soaring travel demand, which is forecast to grow from 17.4 million passengers last year to 30 million by 2030. The agency is expected to name a plan by May and place it on the November county ballot for an advisory vote.

Panel member Mary Sessom of Lemon Grove said it was time to abandon the idea of an airport on a military installation, given Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter's statement in a letter last week that no county bases would be made available, now or in the future, for any type of commercial use.

"What part of no don't we understand?" asked Sessom, a committee member.

Board member Robert Maxwell of Oceanside, who does not sit on the committee, said the Navy official's position was "pretty clear." And he suggested the authority ought to respond like a soldier who submits to an order from his superior officer.

All nine board members were present and participated in the discussion. However, because the session was officially a meeting of the strategic planning committee, only four could vote. None of the three other committee members ---- Paul Nieto, Paul Peterson or Anthony Young ---- supported Sessom's push to prevent the base airport concepts from being considered.

Young flatly refused to bow to a high-ranking official, saying the airport agency does not answer to the military.

"I'm not going to be told what to do or what to think by the Secretary of the Navy or anybody else," Young said.

Peterson said he viewed the Navy secretary's letter in a different light altogether, suggesting it was simply "a snapshot in time" that could change amid shifting political winds and military requirements between now and when the region is expected to need a new airport 15 to 20 years from now.

Board member Bill Lynch said that change would begin to occur if the agency put a military site on the ballot and county voters embraced it.

"Then you'd have a situation where the people have spoken," Lynch said, saying the vote would influence local members of Congress who, in turn, would influence military brass.

Sessom said that was "a naive expectation at best."

Naive or not, consultants from the Chicago firm Ricondo & Associates suggested an airport with twin parallel runways 12,000 feet long could work on Camp Pendleton 2 miles east of Interstate 5 and 1 1/2 miles north of Highway 76, near Oceanside, without compromising base exercises. And, they said, an airport could be built on Miramar, in a shared arrangement that would have the Marines continuing to conduct flight training operations there. North Island could be rolled into a Lindbergh expansion featuring a rail-based "people mover" connection via a tunnel under San Diego Bay, consultants said.

Consultants also offered an "out of the box" idea. It would entail the authority building a single-runway airfield for the Marines on Camp Pendleton in exchange for permission to incorporate one of the existing runways at the Miramar airfield into an international airport at Interstate 15 and Highway 163.

Capt. Mike Allen, Chief of Staff for Navy Region Southwest, said sharing Miramar won't work because of the Marines' 10,000 annual training flights that prepare pilots for landing on aircraft carriers.

Those exercises involve flying for four or five hours at a time in a continuous circle a mile wide. Allen said introducing commercial jets would force the student military pilots to fly over neighborhoods such as Clairemont Mesa.

However, Allen said he could not say if those circular training operations would fit on a Pendleton with a new runway.

Board member Nieto suggested the authority could sweeten the pot by offering to build military housing, too.

"This is an expensive place to live," Nieto said.

Still, it was clear the military is in no mood to give up its Miramar-North Island connection that places aircraft carriers close to the tactical jets that land on them.

"There is nothing like this in the world today, in terms of a training complex," Allen said.