Outspoken Laguna Beach residents Wednesday helped scuttle the state's latest plan to widen Laguna Canyon Road and may have, once and for all, ended the 18-year struggle to realign the accident-prone highway.
The California Coastal Commission--after hearing two hours of testimony--voted 6 to 5 to reject a California Department of Transportation proposal to widen to 4 lanes a 2.3-mile stretch of the scenic winding road, which connects Laguna Beach to the San Diego Freeway.
After the meeting, Keith E. McKean, Caltrans district director for Orange County, said he will probably recommend that Caltrans give up trying to widen the road.
"We've given it our best shot, Laguna Canyon preservationists chartered a bus to lobby coastal panel. Part II, Page 1.
and we've compromised to the very maximum," McKean said. "I can't see continuing and hoping to change the minds of the people in Laguna Beach. If the commission is going to continue to listen to Laguna Beach, then there is nothing we can do."
He also said the state may ask the Legislature to return responsibility for the road to Laguna Beach or Orange County.
"If we are not able to improve safety, we are concerned with retaining it as a state highway. It's too much of a liability," McKean said.
A contingent of about 70 Laguna Beach residents, including four of the five City Council members, had traveled to Marina del Rey for Wednesday's meeting and convinced a majority of the commission that the widening project was not the preferable alternative for making the road safer.
Instead, six commissioners agreed that the city should use several safety measures the City Council has been promoting, including installing a non-traversable median and more traffic signals, and undergrounding utilities.
The commissioners said the community turnout convinced them that most of Laguna Beach was opposed to the project.
"Frankly, I've never before seen a community so wholeheartedly and generally opposed to a project . . . especially the proposed beneficiary of the project," Commissioner Charles Warren said. "They're the ones (who would benefit), yet here they all are, saying, 'Don't save us, government.' "
City Patrols Suggested
Commissioners also suggested that the city increase police patrols on the road.
"It seems to me the city can go the extra mile and really police the hell out of (Laguna Canyon Road)," Commission Chairman Michael Wornum told the audience.
But others, such as Commissioner Mark Nathanson, said he believed that those at the meeting represented only an isolated segment of opinion.
"People get emotional and don't look at what the professionals (making the decisions) have to look at," Nathanson told the audience.
Caltrans, which was making its second trip to the Coastal Commission, was seeking the commission's conceptual approval to get federal money for the $13-million project. The plan called for widening the road from two lanes to four from El Toro Road to Canyon Acres Drive.
The commission staff had recommended that the panel ask Caltrans to include several stipulations before certifying that the project complied with state and federal regulations that are designed to protect the scenic quality and habitats of coastal areas.
McKean told the commission that Caltrans is willing to agree to the stipulations, which included, among other things, paying for undergrounding of utility lines, replacing trees and shrubs removed by grading and studying ways to grade the canyon walls to retain as much of the natural land form as possible.
Improved Widening Proposal
Several commissioners noted that the Caltrans proposal was a significant improvement from its 1986 widening proposal, which the commission rejected.
The differences in the two plans included: reducing grading of the canyon from 2.3 million cubic yards to 530,000, reducing the speed limit from 50 m.p.h. to 45 m.p.h. and installing a non-traversable median.
Despite the improvements in Caltrans' current plan, the commissioners were swayed by testimony from 1,500 letters and 20 speakers contending that widening the road would not make it safer. Rather, they said, a four-lane highway would only increase traffic in Laguna Beach.
"Traffic will go roaring up there (Laguna Beach) and come to a screeching halt," Chairman Wornum said, referring to the bottleneck created by the Broadway-Laguna Canyon Road intersection in downtown Laguna Beach.
The road, banked by coastal canyon walls and bucolic, cow-dotted pastures, has been the scene of many fatal accidents. Two people died last week from injuries suffered in a head-on collision on a straight stretch of the highway north of El Toro Road, which was not part of Caltrans' widening proposal.