NEWPORT BEACH — Years ago, when Pelican Hill Road was merely a line of broken dashes on a road map, the idea of paving it incensed some environmentalists because it represented the first blemish on the last undeveloped coastal land in Orange County.
Now completed and renamed Newport Coast Drive, this 6 1/3-mile-long, county-owned highway that gently winds through rolling hills and newly developed landscape is once again catapulted into a heated debate. For the past two years, the four-lane route has meandered tranquilly about its scenic way, diverting thousands of motorists daily from the arteries of Corona del Mar's business district. But now, the thoroughfare has unexpectedly become controversial again, with hundreds of residents of this coastal community crying foul about a three-mile length of the road becoming a part of the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor.
The tollway is due to open in 1997, with two of its tollbooths at either end of a 1.4-mile segment of Newport Coast Drive. The residents maintain that when the tollbooths are in place, motorists wanting to bypass them will clog Corona del Mar streets by cruising through already jammed, "free" MacArthur Boulevard and Coast Highway.
Moreover, the residents contend, they were never told that part of Newport Coast Drive would one day merge with the tollway.
"Changing what has been a public highway into a private toll road will push more traffic back onto the surface streets around Corona del Mar, a step that will reverse the purpose of building Newport Coast Drive in the first place," said Fern Pirkle, president of Friends of the Irvine Coast, an environmental group that seeks to preserve open space on the byway.
The organization has sought legal advice in the matter, Pirkle said, adding: "The absolute legal question is: Can (the Transportation Corridor Agency) take what is now a public road and turn it into part of a tollway? That's what we want to find out."
Tollway officials argued that the segment in question--a three-mile westerly stretch of Newport Coast Drive that ends at MacArthur Boulevard--was always meant to be part of the tollway. As a matter of fact, said TCA spokesman Mike Stockstill, the agency in June reimbursed $3.57 million to a county assessment district set up to pay for the building of the thoroughfare.
Essentially, when the county built Newport Coast Drive it "constructed the (westerly stretch) for the corridor," Stockstill said.
Furthermore, despite residents' belief the tolls would bring more cars into their neighborhoods, Stockstill said studies show that when the corridor is completed, the segment that is now part of Newport Coast Drive would divert 16,000 cars from Corona del Mar daily.
But opponents of the tolls may have an ally in Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach), who said he would look into the matter once the state Legislature reconvenes in January.
In a May letter to Newport Beach Councilman Phil Sansone, whose district is Corona del Mar, Ferguson said: "I am not aware of anything in the enabling legislation which permits de facto seizure, through tolls, of an existing public road."
In an interview this week, Ferguson--who in 1987 was on the task force that established tollway agencies in the state--repeated: "I can't understand how a private toll road could usurp a public road. . . . That's against the law, as far as I know."
Not since the early 1980s, when it was first proposed, has Newport Coast Drive been so hotly debated. Then only a ridgeline known as Pelican Hill Road, the rural path was used as a bargaining chip between the Irvine Co. and the city of Newport Beach. The Irvine Co. wanted to develop the Irvine Coast, a prime 9,400-acre property on which the route was etched; Newport Beach had the power to reject the proposed project from its general plan.
Watching carefully on the sidelines were the environmentalists who opposed the expansion project.
In exchange for the city's approval and the support of environmental groups, the Irvine Co. agreed to scale down its ambitious project and to help the county finance building the $67-million Pelican Hill Road to divert coastal traffic from Corona del Mar.
Some environmentalists would remain bitter about the compromise, but Pelican Hill Road was completed in November, 1991. At its opening, the name was changed to Newport Coast Drive to reflect its surrounding community, which eventually will include tracts of posh homes, apartments, hotels and two 18-hole golf courses.
The Irvine Co. has said it knew from the beginning that the contested segment of Newport Coast Drive eventually would merge with the corridor.
Today, the issues in the controversy surrounding the thoroughfare are different, but feelings are just as strong, if not stronger.