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Joint use of Miramar stirs controversy

San Diego Regional Airport Authority has finally settled on a site for a possible new international airport to put before the voters in November. And the winner is, not unexpectedly, Miramar. However the decision remains highly controversial. Some see it as a bold move in the region's decades old search for a new airport site. Others see it as a disastrous move that will result in the marines leaving town. KPBS reporter Alison St John has more.

The five hour hearing was packed with San Diegans, either passionately for or against the idea of working towards joint use of Miramar Marine Air Station.
Some said they could not understand why the airport authority members persist in recommending Miramar, after the military leadership has put it this way, What part of no don't you understand ?
But Airport Authority board member Morris Vance, the Mayor of Vista, had an answer.

VANCE: "The part of no that I don't understand quite frankly is their unwillingness to discuss it - I don't want the military to go away any more than anyone else does but I do think that there's got to be some sort of workable solution in here."

The proposal the authority will put on the November ballot asks voters to ask their elected officials to push Congress and the military to make a part of Miramar available for a commercial airport some time after the year 2020. Board members say things change...and once the nation is no longer at war, the military might change their priorities too. But the Navy's Admiral Len Herring says that's a miscalculation.

HERRING: "We are seeing a shift of forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the San Diego area is experiencing that growth. We are not moving out, we are getting bigger."

Herring and marine leaders say the airport authority has been fixated on Miramar from the day they began the research process over three years ago and have even ignore their own criteria to keep it at the top of the list of options.

But John Chalker, a former pilot who spoke at the hearing said the military has its own fixation on Miramar. He asked if the site really meets Department of Defense criteria for a military training base

CHALKER: "Who would place student pilot training and aircraft with live ordinance in the middle of a metropolitan area with three to four million people?"

The marines have worked hard to keep their operations from impacting their urban neighbors more than necessary. Marine Major General Michael Lehnert says San Diego can have one or the other -- either a marine base or an international airport. He says building a commercial runway would push the marines out, and give developers a bonanza.

LEHNERT "If the marines had to leave Miramar, we're not talking about
3,000 acres, we're talking about 23,000 acres and some remarkable development opportunities for some people in San Diego to become very, very rich."

Airport Authority members say they want the marines to stay to keep developers off the property.

The military aren't the only ones concerned about developing a major airport on Miramar. Aviators at Montgomery field just to the south say the flight paths of major commercial jets are likely to encroach on smaller planes at Montgomery Field and force it to close.

Congressman Bob Filner also condemned the site selection process.

FILNER: "I was going to start off by saying I was disappointed with this authority but I'm angry, the Imperial Valley site was discarded from the beginning, you didn't give it an honest analysis."

But board member Paul Nieto says he didn't start with any forgone conclusions about Miramar. In fact, he mentioned North Island as his favored site to begin with. And William Lynch said the process was exhaustive.

LYNCH: "People can think we haven't looked at all the other option but they're wrong, Miramar is not only the best site, it's the only site."

However even the Airport Authority's analysis shows joint use of Miramar wont work if the F-18 fighter jets remain there. The F-18s are due to be phased out sometime in the next couple of decades and replaced with a new fleet of fighters. Board member, and San Diego city councilman Tony Young questioned Major General Michael Lehnert about where the new fleet will be based.

YOUNG: "So that means that it might not be here in 15 or 20 years, is that correct?"

LEHNERT: "What I am saying sir is that right now the intent it to place joint strike fighter at Miramar, Sir."

The marines would have to do a major rethink of their flight training, that right now has Miramar at the hub of bases in Arizona, Nevada and California.

Airport Authority Board member Mary Sessions, mayor of Lemon Grove was one of two members who voted against the ballot language. Even she says Miramar is the best site for a new airport, however, she doesn'tt want politicians pushing the military for the space.

SESSOM: "I think if we back off we're going to start seeing people wanting to talk to us."

But board member Paul Peterson says waiting for the military to come around is what San Diego has been doing for years now He says it's time to be proactive.

PETERSON: "Not just sit here and wait until the military finally say, oh golly gee, we've finally decided we don't want it."

We are asking the airport authority and elected officials to be proactive and go work towards something and try to get something done.

That's what voters will be voting on in November. The measure does include a condition that improvements at Lindberg Field be completed, but those will only increase capacity by about 15 percent, not enough to carry the region into the future.

It's difficult to know what will have changed 20 years from now, that's what the Airport Authority is asking San Diegans to think about as they decide how to vote in November. Alison St John, KPBS News.

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