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Group Battles Toll Road With Prayer

May 21, 2006|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

The state attorney general and environmental groups have sued to stop a toll road that would run through a wilderness preserve in south Orange County, but activists on Saturday invoked a higher power: God.

About 30 people gathered at the Donna O'Neill Land Conservancy near San Juan Capistrano for a nature walk and group prayer session to demonstrate their opposition to plans for a six-lane extension of the 241 toll road that would run through the 1,200-acre preserve.

The toll road would also run through San Onofre State Beach, which has led to the lawsuits by the attorney general and environmentalists challenging the validity of the plans' environmental review.

In the shade of a huge oak tree, a Native American flute player named Dancing Peacock performed, and worshippers affiliated with the Orange County Interfaith Coalition for the Environment prayed, sang and read from a kaleidoscope of texts from religions including Buddhism, Baha'i, Islam and Christianity.

"You may know that Buddha achieved enlightenment sitting under a tree," a member of the group, Ben Savill, said to the gathering. He then read from a text called "Touching the Earth," by Thich Nhat Hanh: "In gratitude, I bow to this land and all the ancestors who made it available."

Orange County's continuing urbanization is pitting its growing population and needs, such as transportation infrastructure, against what remains of its bucolic landscape.

Traffic on the already-clogged Interstate 5 is projected to increase 60% in 20 years. In February, the Transportation Corridor Agencies approved the 241 extension to relieve the congestion, but the plans put the road through a landscape of rolling hills with oaks, lemonade berries, fragrant California sagebrush and monkey flowers.

In 1990, developers set the land aside as open space to offset construction of the Talega luxury home community in San Clemente. Mike Evans, vice president of the board that oversees the conservancy, said the deed of easement on the land required it to remain undeveloped "in perpetuity," but anticipated that the TCA could use eminent domain to build the road through it.

Worshippers on Saturday were hoping for divine intervention.

Dancing Peacock led the group in recognizing the spirits of the four corners. Then members took turns offering readings and prayers.

Shereen Sabet of Huntington Beach offered a personal prayer: "God, you are the most excellent creator," she said. "We enjoy your creations every day."

There was a prayer in Persian, and Naziha Wareh of Corona related a story from the Koran about King Solomon stopping his army from crushing ants underfoot.

"Where the land is hurting, the people are hurting," read Brett Hartman of Costa Mesa from a Baha'i writing.

Margaret Henke of Tustin agreed. Turning her attention to the proposed highway, she said: "This is a huge one. When he talks about the earth hurting, think about how this is going to hurt."

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