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Route for O.C. Tollway Disputed

Proposal to build the road through San Onofre State Beach draws mostly criticism at a state parks commission meeting.

November 05, 2005|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Plans to build a toll road through San Onofre State Beach came under fire by opponents this week as state park commissioners began considering whether to fight the controversial route.

More than 1,000 people -- the vast majority opposed to the tollway -- crowded into the San Clemente Community Center on Thursday night during a four-hour meeting of the California Park and Recreation Commission, which oversees 278 California parks.

The nine-member panel is considering plans by the Transportation Corridor Agencies to build the Foothill South, a 16-mile tollway from Oso Parkway near Mission Viejo to Interstate 5 near San Clemente that is intended to relieve congestion. Bobby Shriver, a toll road critic and brother-in-law of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, heads the commission.

Most of the seven members attending Thursday's meeting leaned toward rejecting a highway that would go through San Onofre, which attracts more than 2.7 million visitors a year and is the fifth-most-popular state park.

The commission is expected to vote at its next meeting in two weeks.

"I'm for tollways," said Commissioner Sophia Scherman of Elk Grove, who toured San Onofre with her colleagues before the meeting. "But I'm not for putting tollways in state parks."

The parks commission has no authority to halt the project, but a rejection of the tollway route could be politically significant, generating support for the park among state officials and the public.

The decision of whether to grant a right-of-way rests with the Navy, which operates the Camp Pendleton Marine base and leases part of it to the state for park use.

If it were granted, the California Coastal Commission would then have to review and approve the highway plan.

At issue are three of six proposed possible routes that would cut through the northern half of San Onofre's 2,029 acres. Just south of the San Diego County line, the park contains several hundred campsites, world-class surfing spots, archeological sites, portions of unspoiled San Mateo Creek and one of the largest concentrations of endangered animal and plant species in the state.

Opponents included members of the public, as well as environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, the Surfrider Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the California State Parks Foundation.

"San Onofre is a unique and beautiful place," said Geoff Rizzie of Anaheim, a high school teacher who regularly camps at the park.

"It's a disgrace that someone would want to turn it into asphalt and concrete."

Deborah Lee, a deputy director of the state Coastal Commission, told the parks panel that a highway through San Onofre was an inappropriate use under the state Coastal Act, which regulates development along the coastline. "We don't believe that the park [routes] are the least harmful of the alternatives," Lee said.

Instead of a tollway, opponents said, adding a lane to each direction of Interstate 5 in south Orange County and making improvements to major streets would relieve freeway congestion more than the Foothill South tollway.

Also testifying were a minority of supporters -- mostly south county residents -- who argued that the Foothill South would relieve congestion on Interstate 5 and complete the TCA's network, which includes the Foothill Eastern and the San Joaquin Hills tollways.

The agency, they said, could fairly balance environmental protection in the park while providing for the transportation needs of fast-growing south Orange County.

TCA officials have said they would build sound walls at campsites and use the best available filtering devices to prevent polluted runoff from reaching San Mateo Creek and the ocean.

The three proposed highway alignments outside the park, supporters said, were unacceptable because they would require condemning anywhere from 112 to 768 homes.

Supporters also dismissed as too expensive proposals by tollway opponents to widen Interstate 5 as an alternative to building the Foothill South.

TCA estimates that would cost about $2.5 billion, compared to $875 million for the toll road.

"I don't like toll roads and I fear the impacts on San Mateo Creek," said Tim Redwine of Lake Forest. "But we need to balance transportation needs with parkland. If the toll road is not completed, it would be illogical and irresponsible."

TCA officials said the large number of opponents at the meeting was not an accurate indicator of public opinion about the Foothill South.

A recent TCA poll of registered voters showed that clear majorities favored building some version of the Foothill South, with the strongest support in south Orange County.

On the other hand, a majority of respondents also said preserving the natural environment was more important than relieving traffic congestion.

The poll did not specifically ask whether respondents would support building Foothill South if it went through San Onofre State Beach.

TCA officials also said they were not surprised by the state park commission's lack of support for the Foothill South routes through San Onofre.

"Their mission is to protect their resources," said Clare Climaco, a TCA spokeswoman.

"If the commission decides against us, we will still work with the state parks department" to reduce the impacts of the road.

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