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Suggested Route for South O.C. Tollway Would Cross State Park

Transit officials are expected to OK the staff proposal. Foes vow to fight the project, which would be built on San Onofre beach land.

December 07, 2005|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

After six years of environmental studies, Orange County toll road agency staff members recommended Tuesday that a controversial tollway be built through San Onofre State Beach -- a popular coastal park that contains endangered species, unspoiled wetlands and world-renowned surfing spots.

The 16-mile route, one of eight options considered, would cause the least harm to natural resources and avoid the possibility of condemning hundreds of homes in San Clemente, the Transportation Corridor Agencies staff concluded.

"This culminates a lot of years of work," said Macie Cleary-Milan, the TCA's deputy director of environmental planning. "We've balanced all the issues to come up with the best project that is environmentally sensitive and does not have community impacts."

The recommended route, which also would cut through a preserve set aside by developers as permanent open space, represents the final link in Orange County's network of tollways.

It would begin at Oso Parkway in Rancho Santa Margarita and connect with Interstate 5 at Basilone Road south of San Clemente, passing through the 1,200-acre Donna O'Neill Land Conservancy and the northern part of San Onofre State Beach.

Environmentalists, state parks officials and tollway opponents said they were disappointed by Tuesday's recommendation and vowed to keep the turnpike out of San Onofre State Beach, which had 2.7 million visitors last year.

"They are going to rob California of an enjoyable experience at the state's fifth-most-popular park. This is unreasonable and unjustified," said Brittany McKee of Friends of the Foothills, a coalition of environmental groups opposed to the toll road.

Plans call for a four-lane highway with a right of way that could later be expanded to six lanes. If all approvals are obtained, TCA officials hope to start construction in 2008. The estimated cost is $875 million.

The agency says the Foothill South is needed to relieve congestion on Interstate 5 through southern Orange County, where traffic is expected to grow by 60% or more by 2025.

Transit officials say the Foothill South would reduce driving times from Oso Parkway to the San Diego County border to 25 minutes, compared with an hour on the interstate.

Eliminated from further consideration were two routes through San Onofre as well as three options in San Clemente that would have required condemning from 112 to 763 homes.

Two more alternatives, to use surface streets through San Clemente and widen Interstate 5, were dismissed as too costly or inadequate.

The preferred route was disclosed Tuesday with the release of the TCA's final environmental impact report for the Foothill South. The public has at least 30 days to review and comment on the report.

Agency board members are expected to approve the recommended route on Jan. 12 -- the first decision in a long approval process that will include state and federal officials.

"This is a milestone," said Yorba Linda Councilman Ken Ryan, who chairs the board of directors for the Foothill Eastern toll road.

The recommendation "is a key component of our great quality of life in Orange County."

Tollway opponents say the highway would degrade San Onofre's campgrounds, wetlands, a large concentration of endangered species, and famous surfing areas, including Trestles.

Two weeks ago, the State Park and Recreation Commission unanimously recommended that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger oppose the project.

James Birkelund, a National Resources Defense Council attorney, said Tuesday that the environmental group was considering a lawsuit to stop the project.

Mike Evans, a board member for the Donna O'Neill Land Conservancy, said he did not like the recommended route but there was little his organization could do because an agreement with Rancho Mission Viejo, a major South County landholder that created the preserve, allowed for roads.

The O'Neill reserve was set aside as open space 14 years ago by the developer as a condition of developing the nearby Talega housing project.

Conservancy officials are concerned that the grading required for the Foothill South would seriously affect wildlife habitat, oak woodlands, scenic canyons and sensitive watersheds.

The TCA's environmental impact report says that 1,194 acres of open space would be disturbed by the project, including about 385 acres of coastal sage-scrub and about 50 acres of wetlands.

Two areas of habitat for endangered arroyo toads and nine for endangered California gnatcatchers would be affected.

The report says other endangered species, such as the least Bell's vireo and Pacific pocket mouse, would not be affected.

The TCA report says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a preliminary opinion that the project would not jeopardize endangered or threatened species.

If the Foothill South is built, TCA officials promise, engineers will protect sensitive watersheds, build 15 wildlife crossings, and replace natural areas lost by construction, as was done with the Foothill Eastern and San Joaquin Hills tollways.

The agency would install detention basins to filter potentially toxic storm runoff from the tollway during construction and operation.

TCA officials say they would also install basins to cleanse runoff from Interstate 5 through San Onofre.

Trestles and the adjacent San Mateo Creek estuary would not be affected by sediment loss or contamination, TCA officials said.

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