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Tollway Foes Learn How to Drive Home a Point : Protest: They want to be ready if courts allow bulldozers to resume work on new road through Laguna Canyon.

November 06, 1994|LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA BEACH — The men and women who gathered Saturday in a Laguna Beach church for civil disobedience training didn't look much like a pack of scofflaws.

The group of 18--including City Council candidate Beth Leeds and about half a dozen senior citizens--munched bagels and talked city politics. Then they arranged their chairs in a circle and got down to business.

They were there for one reason: to consider whether they are willing to be arrested to try to block construction of a toll road in Laguna Canyon.

Some in the group were seasoned protesters, others were considering risking arrest for the first time. Most were from Laguna Beach.

"It's our belief in standing before the bulldozers we will spark a moral outcry that will bring other people forward to join us," said Tim Carpenter, the group's leader, a Santa Ana resident who is founder of the activist group Alliance for Survival. "Our goal is to slow down the bulldozers as much as possible."

Carpenter offered practical tips should the bulldozers return: He urged participants to appoint a "support person" to drive them to the protest site and to connect with an "affinity group" once they get there. Bring a photo identification, he said, don't wear jewelry, smile at police officers.

The "Canyon Coalition Civil Disobedience Training Session" was called in anticipation of a court ruling expected later this year regarding construction of the San Joaquin Hills tollway through Laguna Canyon.

The project has stirred passions in Laguna Beach, a city that has worked for years to keep development out of the bucolic canyon that is one of only two pathways into town.

The 17-mile San Joaquin Hills tollway would cut through Laguna Canyon and the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park as it links San Juan Capistrano to Newport Beach.

Construction is well underway at both ends of the project, but a legal challenge by environmental groups, led by Laguna Greenbelt Inc., has stalled work in the canyon. The court challenge centers on whether the Federal Highway Administration conducted a proper environmental review before approving the toll road in 1992.

In June, a drama unfolded in the canyon north of El Toro Road when a judge ruled grading could begin, prompting bulldozers and protesters to race to the site. One protester chained himself to a bulldozer and another was arrested.

The grading was halted the following day by a second court order. In September, a three-judge panel from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on the matter.

A spokeswoman for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which is charged with building the road, said Friday that they are hoping for a ruling sometime this month.

"We're looking forward to a ruling and we're hoping it comes quickly," Lisa Telles said.

Telles said she expects the ruling will favor the tollway agency and protesters will return to the site. If they interfere with construction, she said, they will be arrested.

"A lot of it has to do with safety as well," Telles said. "That is our No. 1 concern, safety on the site."

Between now and the court's final decision, protesters will be on "tactical alert," said Carpenter, who is planning another session to train others who planned to attend Saturday's meeting but were sidetracked by election duties.

Earlier last week, Alliance executive director Marion Pack said protesters should keep "a nonviolent perspective."

"Violence begets violence, and we would like to see a peaceful resolution of the issue of Laguna Canyon," she said.

The training sessions create a sense of unity among toll road opponents, she said.

"We don't tell people: 'You're going to chain yourself to a bulldozer, you're going to go limp,' " Pack said. "These are personal decisions."

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