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Road Won't Bypass Wildlife

Riverside County panel OKs expansion of thoroughfare linking Corona, Hemet. Foes want more land for an existing preserve.

June 12, 2003|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Riverside County transportation officials decided Wednesday that the best route for a proposed 40-mile thoroughfare between Corona and Hemet would cut through a wildlife preserve south of Lake Mathews, avoiding new housing developments to the north where residents feared losing their homes.

The corridor, which officials said is needed to ease freeway traffic and keep up with the region's intense growth, would be created by expanding two-lane Cajalco Road to four or six lanes.

The Riverside County Transportation Commission voted unanimously in favor of the route, which eventually could be transformed into a freeway.

An earlier proposal called for building the roadway to the north of the lake but faced opposition from residents in Victoria Grove, a new subdivision east of Corona, who were in danger of having their homes condemned.

Local environmentalists have criticized the new route, saying it would fragment the habitat of endangered species, and called on the transportation agency to purchase land to expand the wildlife preserve if the roadway is built.

Commissioner Bob Buster, a Riverside County supervisor, expressed concern about the harm a freeway would do to the environmental preserve and to Mead Valley, where scores of properties could be condemned.

"Neither of these topics have had more than a seat-of-the-pants review," he said.

Buster proposed an amendment that stated that the commission was not authorizing a freeway, and that new studies and public hearings would have to take place before the commission could approve a freeway. But he withdrew the measure in the face of opposition led by Hemet Councilwoman Robin Lowe, a fellow commissioner who said that the eventual goal is indeed to build a freeway.

"You can't mislead the public," said Lowe, who is also commission vice chairwoman.

She said the funding source that will be used is intended for highways, not merely improving surface streets. "If we move forward, we are misappropriating [taxpayer] dollars," she said.

The commission voted 23 to 0 to adopt a staff recommendation for the south-of-lake route, and directed staff to report back in three months with budget projections and timetables for planning and construction. Riverside County Supervisor Marion Ashley abstained because he owns property in the area. Five other commission members were absent, and one did not vote.

The new road could cost as much as $700 million, transportation officials have said. Funds from Measure A -- a voter-approved half-cent sales tax -- would pay for a portion of the cost, and the agency would seek the remainder from the state and federal governments.

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.

The route picked Wednesday, one of four corridors in the county that the commission has been planning since 1999, is designed to ease freeway congestion and provide better access to a planned air cargo center at the March Air Reserve Base.

The route bisects the county's endangered-species reserve, creating additional hurdles from state and federal wildlife agencies.

"We are optimistic, very hopeful, that they are resolvable," said Cathy Bechtel, the commission's director of transportation planning and policy development. "Is it going to be easy? Absolutely not."

Environmentalists have said that widening the road will require major compensation -- adding as much as several thousands acres to the reserve.

"They can not take the easy way out on mitigation," said Jane Block, representing the Endangered Habitats League.

Lake Elsinore Councilman Robert Schiffner had lobbied to have the thoroughfare built closer to his city. However, Riverside, Corona and some of the county's other large cities favored a more northern route. Politicians also supported the Corona-Hemet route because they viewed it as a potential link to a possible new corridor into Orange County.

Homeowners in Victoria Grove were thrilled by the move, which saves many homes in the subdivision from being torn down to make way for the road.

"That's fabulous," said Barbara Boxold, a retiree who moved to Victoria Grove last year. "We moved out here for the peace and quiet and beauty of this area. A freeway just ruins it."

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