On a wind-swept mesa in south Orange County last July, a few feet of asphalt paving for the Foothill freeway sprouted wondrously overnight, quick as weeds.
You had your basic ground breaking, speechifying and back slapping. What you did not have was a real freeway. Nonetheless, federal highway officials said, the fantasy freeway could have jeopardized millions of dollars in federal funds for the real Foothill highway project.
Participants say it happened this way:
The Santa Margarita Co., developer of Rancho Santa Margarita, which is east of Mission Viejo, was perturbed that the public seemed unaware of major freeway projects planned for the area near their development at the same time that a proposed ballot measure was being written by slow-growth advocates.
Joan Condino, then a spokeswoman for Santa Margarita Co., acknowledged beforehand that the ceremony for the asphalt strip would be a purely "symbolic" media event, since construction of the Foothill highway is years away. But Condino said the ground breaking would show that "something is being done about traffic."
The company obtained permission from the county's Environmental Management Agency to grade the site and pave the 30-square-foot patch with asphalt. "We did everything according to the way the county wanted it," said Diane Gaynor, Santa Margarita's new spokeswoman. The ground breaking was covered in the press.
The problems began when a clipping service delivered news articles about the ceremony to the Federal Highway Administration in Sacramento. Federal officials worried that even such a small patch of grading and paving might jeopardize federal funds for the project because the required environmental review of the route had not been completed.
"The problem," recalled Glenn Clinton, a Sacramento-based deputy administrator for the federal agency, "was that the activity there presumed that this was where the new freeway would be built, even though we were still waiting for an environmental impact statement."
Clinton said the ground breaking itself might not have been enough to ring any federal alarms. But when the news stories arrived, officials discovered that the county was considering building other roads on the same right of way.
That sort of planning should not have been taking place before the federal environmental review was completed, Clinton said.
"While we are aware of the immense developmental pressures being exerted in this portion of the county," Clinton wrote to the county Oct. 28, " . . . please be advised that any development activities which occur . . . may result in the loss of potential federal funding."
That got the attention of the Environmental Management Agency. A meeting with federal highway officials was hastily arranged.
At that meeting, county officials explained that they considered the ground breaking to be nothing more than a publicity stunt and that the arterial roads being discussed are a long way from reality.
And they said all necessary environmental reviews are proceeding on schedule.
While no one is ready to say all has been finally resolved, the situation has been tentatively straightened out, said Mike Ruane, a key county planner overseeing the Foothill project.
Clinton agreed. "We think we have worked things out satisfactorily," he said.
But no one is likely to be caught scheduling any ground-breaking ceremonies again soon.