LAGUNA BEACH — Praising Oceanside officials for their diligent efforts to comply with the spirit of the state Coastal Act, the California Coastal Commission on Friday approved a badly needed highway project that city leaders have fought to build since the early 1950s.
After hearing nearly two hours of testimony from a dozen of the 60 Oceanside residents and officials who journeyed by chartered bus to Friday's meeting, the commission voted unanimously to approve the city's coastal land-use plan, which contains the controversial bypass for California 76.
"I feel like a football player who just won the Super Bowl," Oceanside City Councilman Ted Marioncelli said after the vote. "Now all I need is a Coastal Commission ring."
Mayor Larry Bagley was equally overjoyed, calling the commission's decision "a historic occasion for us and an action that is wonderfully responsive to our needs."
Approval of the land-use plan awards Oceanside sole authority to issue development permits in the coastal zone--a major achievement for any growing city. But perhaps more importantly for Oceanside, the commission's action removes the final major hurdle blocking improvement of the highway, an old, curvy road that stretches from the Pacific Ocean inland to Fallbrook.
The six-lane bypass would spin off from Interstate 5 just north of downtown Oceanside and connect with the existing Route 76--also known as Mission Avenue--about three miles inland at Frontier Drive.
For years, city officials have maintained that the expressway is necessary to alleviate congestion on the busy westerly section of Mission Avenue and to accommodate booming residential and industrial development in the San Luis Rey Valley. They have twice before presented their arguments to the commission, and twice been denied approval.
Controversy has centered on the highway's route along the environmentally sensitive riverbed of the San Luis Rey River, an area that is home to numerous rare plants and animals--including a bird expected to be placed on the federal endangered species list.
Because of lingering questions about the highway's impact on the river valley, Coastal Commission staff members on Friday recommended that approval of the project again be delayed. They also argued in a 42-page report to the commission that alternatives to the river route--such as widening the existing Route 76--had not been adequately studied.
The staff members urged the 12 commissioners to attach certain conditions before approving the project. These included reducing the highway from six to four lanes and requiring replacement of wildlife habitat lost to the bypass on a 4-to-1 ratio.
"The San Luis Rey riverbed is one of very few Southern California river valleys that still functions as a complete ecosystem," said Thomas A. Crandall, Coastal Commission South Coast director. "There is no question that the proposed (highway) alignment would be damaging to this natural resource, and we feel approval at this point is premature."
But commissioners, perhaps swayed by Bagley's plea that "delay is the deadliest form of denial," apparently disagreed. They congratulated Oceanside officials on their efforts to respond to commission concerns expressed four years ago and concluded that the city's proposal would sufficiently minimize the impact of the highway on the valley habitat.
"I think when you've got a city that has gone as far as Oceanside to fulfill the requirements of the Coastal Act, we should recognize that and go with the city," said Commissioner George Shipp.
Moments later, the commission voted to certify the land-use plan, prompting members of the Oceanside delegation to stand and applaud.
"This has been a long time coming, and to get a unanimous vote is just fantastic," Councilman John MacDonald said as he boarded the bus headed back to Oceanside. "The bypass is the key to many, many projects that have been held up because of traffic concerns. Now we can proceed with development in the San Luis Rey Valley with confidence."
Friday's approval of the Route 76 bypass, one-third of which crosses land under the commission's jurisdiction, was considered the major hurdle to construction of the highway, which is scheduled to begin in 1989.
"What they did was wipe out the roadblock that has held us up for so many years," MacDonald said. "It paves the way for us to begin acquiring property for the route and lets us start negotiations on the eventual extension of the freeway all the way to Interstate 15."
More than $12 million from the state Transportation Commission and the San Diego Assn. of Governments already has been earmarked for the $17.5-million bypass.
Bagley said the city's next step toward construction of the highway would be to help Caltrans finish its engineering plans and to approach the state Transportation Commission for additional funding.
"We also intend to try to get the state to move forward the timetable on the highway as much as possible," Bagley said. "We think we've waited long enough."