SANTA ANA — Despite continuing protests from some South County residents, the Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday to realign a northern stretch of scenic Laguna Canyon Road and widen it to a four-lane highway to ease traffic congestion and reduce accidents.
For more than a decade, county and state officials have studied ways to improve safety on the roadway, one of the most dangerous in Orange County, averaging two to three fatalities a year. The county's Environmental Management Agency, which urged the board to adopt the redesign, said the roadway has an injury- and fatal-accident rate approximately double that of other state highways.
Laguna Beach City Manager Kenneth C. Frank said that relatively few people in town, including environmentalists, had appeared before the City Council or at workshops to oppose the plan that supervisors adopted Tuesday.
"There is not unanimous support, but there never will be," he said.
But about a dozen residents opposed the plan Tuesday, expressing concerns that design changes will infringe on the pastoral beauty and peace of the roadway linking the San Diego Freeway in Irvine with Coast Highway in Laguna Beach.
They said the move would undermine the efforts of Laguna Beach residents, who voted to spend $20 million for a wilderness park that the roadway bisects.
"I feel I am being steamrollered," said Eleanor Henry, a 34-year resident of Laguna Beach. "The wildlife in the wilderness park will cease to exist."
"Laguna taxpayers are being robbed," said Jean Jenks.
Under the county's plan, Laguna Canyon Road, which is now two to three lanes wide, would be widened to four lanes on a 4.8-mile segment between El Toro Road and the San Diego Freeway to accommodate a projected 42% increase in traffic to about 34,000 average daily trips by the year 2010.
The increased highway capacity also will help accommodate motorists entering and leaving the proposed San Joaquin Hills tollway, which is planned to intersect with Laguna Canyon Road about a mile north of El Toro Road, said Ken R. Smith, the county's director of transportation in the Environmental Management Agency.
The plan, which still must be approved by the California Department of Transportation, calls for construction of the realignment and widening to begin in 1996, with completion in late 1997.
Smith said a consensus on a highway-widening plan did not come easily. "It represents a year and a half of intensive discussions between the cities of Laguna Beach and Irvine, the environmental community, CalTrans and" the Irvine Co., he said.
The county's plan incorporates a number of environmental concessions. It proposes moving the existing roadway from between two natural lakes and relocating it to a less environmentally sensitive area farther west. This roadway relocation would also assist a plan to restore a historic linkage between the two lakes.
Additionally, two wildlife undercrossings are proposed near the Laguna Lakes and a third near the Laguna Reservoir.
"The realigned road will also serve as a main entry point to the future Laguna Coast Wilderness Park," Smith said
Another important concession that the county made to environmentalists, Smith said, was to promise to remove a six-lane highway designation for a portion of Laguna Canyon Road that is currently on the county's master plan of arterial highways. The stretch is between Lake Forest Drive and the proposed tollway.
Don Harvey, executive director of the Orange County Bicycle Coalition, commended the plan for providing eight-foot shoulders on the road to make cycling safer.
But he was outnumbered at Tuesday's meeting by protesters, who called themselves the Canyon Coalition. They contended that the road widening and realignment were unnecessary because of other planned road improvements in the area, such as the planned widening of the El Toro Y and upgrading of Moulton Parkway.
The protesters also attacked the adequacy of the road expansion's environmental impact report, contending, among other things, that it neglects to scrutinize a portion of the road where it will join with the proposed San Joaquin Hills tollway. The county staff countered that this issue has been addressed in the tollway's environmental impact report.
Further, the protesters contended that the proposed road widening would violate a provision of a bond proposition passed by Laguna Beach voters in 1990 to help pay for the wilderness park that includes Laguna Canyon. They said the proposition stipulates that the acquired land would not be used for purposes other than a park without approval by the majority of the electorate.
City Manager Frank and City Atty. Philip Kohn said after the meeting that they were unsure whether the road widening would require approval by Laguna Beach voters, but added that the matter could be raised in the future if the county attempts to acquire parkland from the city for the widening and realignment project.
"To raise that issue now is premature," Frank said.