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Tollway Extension Plans Given the Cold Shoulder

Many at the Foothill South hearing criticize the suggested routes, citing environmental concerns.

June 20, 2004|Kevin Pang | Times Staff Writer

South County residents concerned about a proposed toll road extension voiced their opposition with protest signs and impassioned speeches at a public hearing Saturday.

About 600 people -- the majority wearing stickers denouncing the Foothill South extension -- filled the Tesoro High School gymnasium near Rancho Santa Margarita.

The Transportation Corridor Agencies, Orange County's toll road owners, organized the hearing to present possible routes for the toll road. Cheers and applause erupted when an agency official spoke of the "no action" alternative.

The proposed 16-mile extension would connect the end of California 241, east of Mission Viejo, with San Clemente. Agency officials said the extension is needed to serve the county's growing population.

But the Sierra Club, the Surfrider Foundation and other environmental organizations are opposed because construction could affect up to 500 acres of wetlands and wildlife habitat, according to environmental studies. Three proposed routes would run through the Donna O'Neill Land Conservancy and San Onofre State Park.

One after another, residents and members of at least two city councils took the podium to criticize the proposed extensions' environmental and economic effects.

Marni Magda, an 18-year resident of Laguna Beach, said construction will harm animals protected by the Endangered Species Act, including the California gnatcatcher, the Arroyo toad and the Southern steelhead trout.

"It's illegal and ill-conceived," Magda said to applause.

Said surfing magazine publisher Steve Pezman: "Everything about the toll road destroys and degrades the experience of surfing Trestles [Beach]."

Pezman said construction would disturb surf breaks and that runoff would affect water quality. The San Clemente resident surfs several times a week between San Onofre State Beach and the San Diego County line, and said the coastline would lose its rustic charm if the tollway were built. "Its value as a relief from urban sprawl would be hugely degraded," Pezman said.

Others say the toll road does not make economic sense, citing financial problems with the San Joaquin Hills tollway, which runs between Newport Beach and San Juan Capistrano. The 16-mile road, also known as California 73, has seen lower-than-expected traffic and revenue since it opened in 1996.

Those who supported the toll road's construction drew mostly boos from the audience.

Richard A. Watson, president of an urban planning and development group, said the opposition's concern that the toll road would diminish open space is exaggerated.

"Orange County has done a good job balancing development and open space," said the former professor of planning. "The [agency] should use sound planning, good science and reason rather than emotion."

Among those in attendance was Eric Norby, an alternate on the Foothill-Eastern TCA board of directors, which will ultimately decide whether the toll road is built.

Norby was jotting down notes from each speaker, and said he would take residents' concerns back to the 15-member board.

"I'll listen and hear what they have to say," he said. "Our minds are not made up until we vote."

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