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A Corona-Hemet Road Forces a Tough Choice

Hundreds of homes block one possible route; another bisects a wildlife habitat.

June 02, 2003|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

The push for a new thoroughfare between Corona and Hemet, an essential piece of Riverside County's plan to ease freeway traffic and keep pace with the area's growth, has confronted officials with a daunting choice: bulldoze hundreds of homes or destroy a swath of prime habitat for endangered wildlife.

The plan also has stirred up animosity in Lake Elsinore, where officials believe an early proposal to make the city the road's western end was cast aside to favor the more politically powerful cities of Corona and Riverside.

For years, the Riverside County Transportation Commission has been planning for a major east-west corridor to ease congestion throughout the county -- primarily on stretches of the 91, 60 and 215 freeways -- and to provide better access to a planned air cargo center at the March Air Reserve Base.

Agency officials initially supported a route north of Lake Mathews, where homes can fetch more than $300,000, but the proposal has run into such strong opposition from residents that the commission has essentially scuttled the idea.

Their top alternative would send the 40-mile, $700-million road south of the lake, through the county's endangered-species reserve for creatures such as the Stephens' kangaroo rat and coastal California gnatcatcher. Environmentalists already are speaking out against the plan, which also would face many federal and state regulatory hurdles.

Environment at Risk

"It's definitely an environmental catastrophe to do that," said Monica Bond, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity's office in Idyllwild. "It just absolutely plows right through one of the core reserves."

Commission members said they will consider all the alternatives when they meet June 11 to try to pick a preferred route, but that there already is strong support for building the road through the preserve.

"It's never a done deal until it's signed and delivered, but ... that's probably the route that is going to be most favored by the commission," said Commissioner John F. Tavaglione, who also chairs the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. "Obviously, there will be a tremendous amount of debate among the members of the commissions, [but] I think in the end that route provides the most transportation benefits and the least political disruption, and more importantly, the least disruption to the communities."

The transportation commission is overseen by a 30-member board made up of elected officials from the county's 24 cities, all five supervisors and the director of the regional Caltrans district. The commission plans and sets priorities for major transportation projects throughout the county, and administers funds raised by local Measure A, a voter-approved half-cent sales tax.

Since the late 1990s, the transportation commission has studied as many as 14 east-west routes in the western end of Riverside County. The route now favored by a number of commissioners, and several of the county's largest cities, would expand the existing two-lane Cajalco Road through the nature preserve south of the lake.

Initially, the commission would widen the road to as many as six lanes, and eventually it could be transformed into a freeway. Measure A funds would pay for a portion of the road's cost, and the agency would seek the remainder of the funding from the state and federal government.

"It's needed now, regardless of what happens with growth in the future," said John Standiford, spokesman for the commission. "We need it for current mobility."

Earlier this year, residents of the new Victoria Grove subdivision north of Lake Mathews learned their homes could be bulldozed to make way for the north-of-the-lake proposal, and were relieved when they heard that the commission was leaning toward abandoning the idea.

Barbara Boxold, 64, moved to the area from Riverside a year ago. When she bought the house, which cost about $300,000 to buy and improve, she had no idea the county transportation commission was considering routing a thoroughfare through the community.

"When we bought our homes here in Victoria Grove, there was no comment about this at all. We were rather devastated. I'm retired. This was my retirement home. To think I might get ripped out of here was devastating," she said.

Boxold said she was thrilled when she heard transportation officials were seriously considering running the road south of the lake.

But environmentalists worry that that route will kill the peace and quiet -- and the home territory -- of rare flora and fauna.

Such a large road would fragment habitat, Bond said, isolating different populations of Stephens' kangaroo rats, red-diamond rattlesnakes and other species.

Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League in Los Angeles, said that the road also would destroy coastal sage scrub, chaparral, grasslands and colorful wildflowers.

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