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thedrifter
01-23-06, 12:34 PM
Miramar a mirage for airport developers
UNION-TRIBUNE
January 23, 2006

I'm sitting on the ocean-view terrace outside Del Mar's Il Fornaio, talking with Doug Manchester about Miramar.

Miramar. It's our most frustrating civic mirage. For more than half a century, it's been the international airport of San Diego's feverish dreams.

An experienced pilot, Manchester ticks off the comely virtues of Miramar – its astonishing size (more than 23,000 acres); the underground fuel line from Long Beach to Miramar; easy freeway and rail access; open-space buffers to nearby communities; virtual absence of environmental hurdles to delay construction.

One of the shrewdest developers in a region famous for them, Manchester is recalling how his vision of winged paradise was lost in 1994.

It was a rare window in time when Miramar Naval Air Station appeared ripe for the taking. The Navy was packing up; the Marines, telegraphing reservations about moving planes and helicopters south, hadn't yet arrived.

Seizing the moment, Manchester enlisted an army of business leaders and aviation experts. The mission: persuade the Pentagon to send the Marines someplace else and move Lindbergh Field from the harbor to an empty Miramar. Manchester would end up spending $800,000 of his own money on the doomed crusade.

Despite a 1994 countywide vote in favor of a civilian airport at Miramar if the base became available, local politicians – most notably Mayor Susan Golding and former Rep. Randall Harold Cunningham – undercut Manchester's Proposition A and pushed for the Marines to move to Miramar, rendering the public mandate moot. In short, the window closed.

Manchester still bristles at the betrayal.

"It was a horrible decision," he says. "It was a costly decision. It was the worst decision that's ever been made in San Diego's history."

In Manchester's view, the region kissed goodbye billions of dollars in tax money by failing to create a first-tier airport at Miramar by 2001 and developing "some of the greatest property in the world," the roughly 500 bay-front acres where Lindbergh is today.

"It would have changed forever the economic and environmental fabric of what we know as San Diego," he says.

Given his history, you'd expect Manchester to be a cheerleader for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, which appears intent on placing an advisory Miramar proposition on the November ballot.

Well, you'd be wrong.

"I will never vote or support anything that will endanger or compromise the Marine Corps," Manchester says.

He sees zero incentive for the Marines, who for a decade have been putting down tap roots on Miramar, to share their sprawling house with civilian airliners.

Joint use is difficult but technically feasible, Manchester believes, but unless the Marines voluntarily agree it's in their best interest to make a deal with San Diego, he's 100 percent opposed.

Unless the window opens, count him out.

I'm sitting in the Scripps Ranch Library, listening to political aides and community leaders – one after the other – declare their adamant opposition to civilian planes at Miramar.

The NIMBYs are young and old but they're all restless.

"The airport authority is moving forward toward a site," reports Deanna Spehn, aide to state Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego. "And it looks to a lot of us that it's Miramar they've identified."

In these sensitive parts, it's 1994 all over again. The call to battle has been sounded.

Scripps Ranch, Mira Mesa, Sabre Springs, Rancho Peñasquitos, Tierrasanta – Miramar's civilian neighbors show up at the library to declare their willingness to fight to the last child, the last golden retriever.

During the meeting, Manchester's name is evoked at least five times. In this crowd, he's the Machiavellian manipulator once again pushing the takeover of Miramar. (Evidently, no one suspects the irony, that Manchester is billing himself as their pro-Marines ally.)

In desperate tones, speakers attack the airport authority's fundamental premise that Lindbergh will run out of capacity in the near future. Others rail at joint use as unworkable. Others endorse Imperial Valley or Campo, remote airport sites that would add many billions of dollars – and several years – to the construction of an airport and mag-lev line over steep terrain.

Some 60 people attend the meeting. I must be the only one there who can imagine the beauty of Miramar as a civilian airport.

I keep my mouth shut and listen to the war plans.

Finally, I'm sitting by myself, thinking about Miramar.

If the language of the authority's November proposition reads something like this – The airport authority will work with the Marines to locate a joint-use airport at Miramar – the result could be similar to 1994: The county as a whole could approve the general notion while the majority of the city of San Diego, driven by the NIMBY turnout in District 1 and District 5, could vote no.

But no matter what the election determines, the Marines are going to say no. Political leaders – Kehoe, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, Assemblyman George Plescia, R-Mira Mesa, Councilman Brian Maienschein and a host of others – will undercut the airport authority's dream. Once again, Miramar will drop off the civilian radar screen.

Miramar. It's the magic carpet that every decade or so is pulled out from under us, our noses pressed against a window that's closed.

Logan Jenkins can be reached at (760) 737-7555 or by e-mail at logan.jenkins@uniontrib.com.

Ellie