Battleship-base opponents fight to let New Yorkers have their say

Right now it looks like New Yorkers won't be able to vote on whether a US Navy battleship homeport should be built on Staten Island. A State Supreme Court Justice ruled Wednesday that a referendum on the issue is unconstitutional and violates the federal government's ``constitutional supremacy'' in matters of national defense.

Nevertheless, both sides are still preparing for an election day battle.

Supporters of the referendum, which would restrict the city's power to facilitate any military development designed to store nuclear weapons, have already appealed the case.

The referendum question was characterized by some as merely a public relations campaign by the antinuclear movement, because some supporters privately admitted it was likely to be ruled unconstitutional.

Although questions by local lawmakers last year prompted Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to kill the first year's funding for the port, the plan has since been given the go-ahead. Last week the House of Representatives voted $86.2 million for the Staten Island homeport.

The courtroom volleys over the referendum are not quite finished.

Neither side is giving ground in the battle to see whether the issue will be on the Nov. 5 ballot here.

New York politicians cheering Wednesday's court decision include Mayor Edward I. Koch, and US Senators Alfonse M. D'Amato and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

``We won the first battle,`` says Mayor Koch.

Opponents of the homeport -- including Congressman Ted Weiss (D) of New York City and City Council President Carol Bellamy -- said appeals will continue.

``It had been made clear by the parties on each side of the suit that whatever the lower court ruling was, the decsion would be appealed by the losing side,'' says Representative Weiss.

The possible presence of nuclear weapons in the seven ship fleet is the crux of the issue.

New York legislators -- with some exceptions -- worked hard to convince the US Navy to base the USS Iowa and its six support ships at Staten Island.

The Navy, for security reasons, will not say whether nuclear weapons will be on the ships. But opposition to the project by antinuclear groups has grown. They collected more than 100,000 signatures for the referendum.

The ballot question is not directly on homeport. It would amend the City charter to ``restrict the powers of the Board of Estimate to facilitate the development of any military facility, any component of which is designed to carry or store nuclear weapons.''

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