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Groups Uniting to Battle O.C. Toll Road Plans

Possible route through a state park angers surfers. Transit agency vows no harm to land.

September 20, 2004|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Regulars consider it one of the last jewels on the Southern California coast, a place of isolated beauty where the cool, green ocean is clean and the waves are some of the best in the state.

Just south of the Orange County line, San Onofre State Beach offers ample campgrounds, a nature preserve, archeological sites and 4.6 miles of beach that feature world-famous surf spots, including Old Man's and Trestles. Osprey frequent the Trestles estuary.

Now, the largest toll road operation on the West Coast might drop a new highway into the park. Three of six potential routes under consideration by the Transportation Corridor Agencies would slice through the entire length of San Onofre's northern section, which represents more than half the park's land area. The TCA has yet to choose a route.

If the Foothill South tollway is built through San Onofre, TCA officials vow to take significant steps to minimize harm to the park's natural assets. The environment can be protected, they say, while accommodating growth and relieving congestion on Interstate 5 -- now the lone highway connecting Orange and San Diego counties.

"There is a balance," said Macie Cleary-Milan, the TCA's deputy director of environmental planning. "We believe we can deal with the traffic concerns and protect the environment."

Nevertheless, the project has triggered the opening shots of what might become one of the most significant environmental battles over Orange County development since the slow-growth movement of the 1980s. The Sierra Club has made stopping the toll road and planned development near its route a national priority.

Mobilizing against the Foothill South are surfers, environmental groups and a variety of state officials, including Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, a longtime tollway opponent. Lockyer has called the Foothill South an "inappropriate use" for such a unique and popular park.

Opponents fear that the toll road plus nearby development will severely degrade a large portion of the park and spoil Trestles, the estuary and San Mateo Creek with noise, a concrete flyover and contaminated storm water runoff.

The creek is one of the last relatively unspoiled watersheds in Southern California. Endangered steelhead trout have been found in its higher reaches.

Critics also assert that the natural flow of sand and rock needed to maintain the quality of the beach and surf breaks might be shut off.

"There is only one San Onofre. There is only one Trestles," said Rich Rozzelle, a superintendent in the Orange Coast District of the state Department of Parks and Recreation. "There are no replacements if they are lost."

The park, which is now 2,029 acres, was created in 1971 under an executive order signed by President Nixon. Since then, San Onofre has become the fifth most popular destination in the state's 277-park system. Park figures show it attracted 2.7 million visitors last year.

The inland piece of San Onofre is the San Mateo area east of Interstate 5, off Cristianitos Road. Three of the proposed tollway routes would divide this narrow, 1,211-acre parcel lengthwise.

It contains hiking trails, an outdoor education center, wildlife habitat, 161 spots for campers and seven archeological sites, including a Juaneno Indian village known as Panhe. The area was set aside to compensate for expanded parking facilities at the nearby San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

The coastal section of the park features renowned surf breaks and, south of the power plant, hiking trails and 176 bluff-top campsites.

"Most of the waves in Southern California occur in urbanized areas. Trestles is one of the most natural settings for surfing. You have to walk in, and one of the last undeveloped valleys leads to the beach," said Steve Pezman, publisher of the Surfer's Journal. "The question is: Are future generations going to appreciate the natural setting there or the toll road?"

Bumper stickers reading "Save Trestles. Stop the Toll Road" are showing up on cars and trucks, many of them handed out on weekend mornings by activist Jerry Collamer, a surfer and marketing consultant from San Clemente.

Collamer regularly mans a table on the trail to Trestles to drum up opposition to the tollway.

Last week, surfer Scott Betcher, 37, of Mission Viejo stopped at Collamer's table to fill out a card. "If you look at Doheny, it's a swill pit," he said, referring to the Dana Point surf spot that has become one of the most polluted beaches in the state. "I don't want that to happen here."

If built, the four-lane Foothill South would complete a turnpike system that now has 51 miles of highways -- the San Joaquin Hills, the Foothill-Eastern and a short section of California 133.

TCA officials say the Foothill South is needed to relieve severe congestion on Interstate 5 caused by continuing development in south Orange County and elsewhere. Traffic on Interstate 5 is expected to increase 50% to 60% by 2025.

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