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The Search for an Airport II


IF THE FOLLOWING THEME begins to sound familiar, don’t stop me. This is not déjà vu.

“The fantastic drama of our city trying to emerge full grown from its own forehead would strain the narrative powers of a Homer. In recent months . . . airport consultants hired by the city of San Diego have had adventures that recall those of ancient Ulysses and associates.

“We are thinking especially of the good Greeks’ tangle with lumbering Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant who ate men the way men eat corn-on-the-cob, and who lived in a cave closed off with a great boulder unbudgeable by ordinary humans.

“Far be it from us to rate the U.S. Navy with Polyphemus, but the Navy is certainly a lumbering giant, is certainly single-eyed in its devotions, and it certainly lives behind an unbudgeable boulder: security regulations.”

Those were the introductory paragraphs to a San Diego Magazine cover story recounting the epic battles of the city of San Diego to find a suitable site for a new international airport. They were written half a century ago, in the May 1956 issue.

Then, as now, the city’s battle centered on attempts to persuade the military that a joint civilian-military airport was the only practical solution. In 1956, the “experts’ ” bold plan called for joint use of North Island Naval Air Station—complete with a “vehicular tube” connecting San Diego and Coronado. “The density of Navy air traffic and the volume of civil airline and general aircraft use of the airspace has grown to proportions where immediate and firm action is necessary to permit continued growth of both Navy and civil air operations in the San Diego area,” wrote consultant Leigh Fisher, in a report to the San Diego mayor and city council. Clearly, Fisher’s logic didn’t fly.

In 2006—after four years and an estimated $10 million spent on consultants who analyzed a half-dozen options for replacing or modifying Lindbergh Field—the nine members of the San Diego Airport Authority came up with their bold plan for the joint use of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. That is the plan that will be put before San Diego voters this month as Proposition A.

But wait. The wording of Proposition A has more holes than a wedge of Jarlsberg:

“To provide for San Diego’s long-term air transportation needs, shall the Airport Authority and government officials work to obtain approximately 3,000 of 23,000 acres of MCAS Miramar by 2020 for a commercial airport, provided necessary traffic and freeway improvements are made, military readiness is maintained without expense to the military for modifying or relocating operations, no local taxes are used on the airport, overall noise impacts are reduced, and necessary Lindbergh Field improvements are completed?”

This is what is called an “advisory vote”—all gums, no teeth. But the Airport Authority leaves no doubt it considers the vote crucial.

At a civilian-military debate arranged by the San Diego Rotary Club in August, Airport Authority Chairman Joe Craver took to quoting Churchill. “We are entering an era of consequences,” he said gravely, adding, “This is the biggest issue to face our region in the past 50 years.” Precisely.

Craver went on to say that nothing in the language of Proposition A “speaks to kicking the military out of Miramar. This is about taking steps for dialogue and cooperation,” he said.

Colonel Christopher O’Connor, commanding officer of MCAS Miramar, fired back, noting, “We’ve already spent hundreds of hours in countless meetings, briefings, board meetings and tours on this. We’ve never declined to meet with or consult with anybody.” But the answer will continue to be “no,” he insisted, sounding like something very close to a one-eyed giant.

Still, maybe our Airport Authority could have benefited from a reading of our prophetic, May 1956 story. In opting for North Island as the best site for a new airport, Miramar was ruled out even then.

“Considered strictly from a city planning point of view, neither Miramar nor nearby Montgomery Field [another option considered and rejected] is suitably placed for noisy and dangerous jet aircraft activity, military or civilian,” wrote San Diego Magazine associate editor James Britton. “These two fields are right in the middle of the city’s likely growth pattern.

“At any rate,” he concluded, “the momentous evidence of the Fisher report is that the San Diego metropolitan area is ‘completely encircled’ by Navy installations, and that no sound civilian airport solution is possible without the Navy yielding somewhere.

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