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Tollway green light is many stops down road

The 16-mile turnpike, planned to run through San Onofre State Beach, must get past 8 agencies. Toughest test will likely be Coastal Commission.

March 26, 2007|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

During the next three years, the government agency planning a tollway through San Onofre State Beach must clear a thicket of regulatory hurdles before construction can begin.

The Irvine-based Transportation Corridor Agencies needs approvals from at least eight state and federal agencies to build the Foothill South toll road, a 16-mile highway that would cross the northern half of the popular coastal park.

Last month, TCA board members postponed the start of construction for the tollway from 2008 to early 2011 because of the complexity of the permit process.

"The schedule change has brought reality to the situation, but it is disappointing. We need to start construction today," said county Supervisor Bill Campbell, a TCA board member.

Tollway officials must secure permits from the California Coastal Commission, state Department of Fish and Game, Army Corps of Engineers, state water quality regulators, the state Office of Historic Preservation, Federal Highway Administration and the Navy because San Onofre State Beach is on land leased from the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base.

Also of importance is a biological opinion that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing. If it finds that the project puts endangered species in jeopardy, it could threaten the proposal.

But the most difficult hurdle to get over might be the state Coastal Commission, which regulates development along the state's vast coastline. Its staff already has expressed serious reservations about the Foothill South.

Deborah Lee, the commission's deputy director, testified at a November 2005 hearing in San Clemente that the proposal violates state law and that commissioners would likely deny a development permit.

Mark Delaplaine, a Coastal Commission staff member analyzing the highway project, says the road threatens campgrounds, watersheds and endangered species, such as the Pacific pocket mouse.

"We have been on the record pretty strongly about the toll road," Delaplaine said.

"It's hard for me to see how they are going to get past the campground and pocket mouse issues. But maybe there are things the TCA can do. I need to remain open-minded."

TCA board members said it was premature for commission staff to comment on the project when they had yet to receive the permit application.

"I'm disappointed that they are going in with the preconceived notion of failure," said Mission Viejo City Councilman Lance MacLean, TCA board vice chairman. "Clearly we want to make this the most environmentally sensitive project we can. The process we have to go through will make the highway better."

The Foothill South would run from Oso Parkway in Rancho Santa Margarita to Interstate 5 at Basilone Road, south of San Clemente. The cost estimate is $875 million.

Supporters say the tollway is needed to accommodate the region's population growth and to reduce traffic on I-5, which is projected to increase 60% by 2025.

The Foothill South will complete the TCA's network of turnpikes, which includes the Eastern, the Foothill and the San Joaquin Hills.

Opponents counter that the six-lane highway would irreparably harm San Onofre, a popular park that contains endangered species, unspoiled watersheds, archeological sites, pleasant campgrounds and world-renowned surf spots.

"It's a bad idea," said Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara), who unsuccessfully sought legislation last year to stop the tollway.

"I suspect when it gets to the commission, I will look for ways to express my opposition, including testifying."

To help meet federal requirements and to secure permits from the Coastal Commission, the TCA authorized $1.15 million this month to hire legal and planning consultants. Tollway officials hope to submit the application within a year.

Once it is received, the commission's staff will scrutinize the project to determine if it complies with the California Coastal Act and make recommendations to the commission, which must decide whether to grant a development permit.

The process can take years for major projects. There are often lengthy public hearings and discussions between agencies before final requirements are set for a development.

From his initial review of the project, Delaplaine says one key issue is the San Mateo Campground, which was given to the state by Southern California Edison in exchange for the loss of a bluff-top campground to make way for the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in the early 1970s.

The campground's 162 sites, amphitheater and bathroom facilities would be 400 feet from the tollway.

"The campground is rare and unusual with links to surfing and other recreation," Delaplaine said.

"There is no place like it between Gaviota [near Santa Barbara] and the Mexican border. The highway will ruin the experience."

Delaplaine said the TCA's plan to build a freeway ramp over the San Mateo Creek marine estuary is inconsistent with the state Coastal Act, which prohibits the sinking of concrete pilings into wetlands.

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