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Highway program suspended

Minutemen group sued agency over moving its sign away from I-5 checkpoint to a less traveled area.

June 24, 2008|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Caltrans has abruptly suspended its popular Adopt-A-Highway program several months after an anti-illegal immigration group sued the state agency for discrimination after it was forced to move its stretch of highway farther from a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint along Interstate 5 in San Diego County.

State transportation officials have decided to put pending Adopt-A-Highway permits on hold while they review guidelines for the program, which allows groups and individuals to clean litter from a designated stretch of state road in exchange for a highway sign featuring the name of the business or organization.

Existing permits will remain in effect as the state Office of Administrative Law reviews the program's rules, said Edward Cartagena, Caltrans spokesman for District 11, which covers San Diego and Imperial counties. He could not estimate how long that process might take; state officials say they will seek public comment on the evaluation of the 19-year-old program.

Caltrans suspended applications June 17, Cartagena said. The decision comes more than four months after the San Diego Minutemen filed a federal lawsuit against the state agency, accusing it of discrimination and violation of free speech after Caltrans moved the group's sign. Saying that the location south of San Clemente could draw protesters, Caltrans moved the Minutemen's piece of road to a less-trafficked spot on California 52 in eastern San Diego County near Santee.

The founder of the San Diego Minutemen, Jeff Schwilk, said Monday that the agency's decision follows his group's failed attempt to adopt a different part of Interstate 5 last month. Schwilk says Caltrans officials allowed Jobing.com the piece of road 4 to 6 miles south of the checkpoint even though that business applied for the spot later. The agency then offered them a different freeway in the "middle of nowhere," he said.

Caltrans "pulled a fast one," he said. "Everything they've done over the last seven months doesn't make any sense. . . . Together it is all part of the same conspiracy to keep us off the freeway, especially I-5.

"They are discriminating against a group of American citizens because they don't like our political message of 'Secure the borders.' "

Cartagena declined to comment on the lawsuit or the Minutemen's involvement in the program, citing ongoing litigation.

The Minuteman Project, a different anti-illegal immigration group, recently adopted a portion of northbound California 133 in Irvine with little fanfare, founder and President Jim Gilchrist said.

"It just seems awful peculiar that right after my sign was approved that they decided to stop issuing any more and . . . tighten up the screening process," he said.

Most of San Diego and Imperial counties' state roads, with the exception of a few deserted parts of Interstate 8, are adopted, Cartagena said. The waiting list for popular metropolitan areas can be years. Groups in the area typically adopt a 2-mile patch of road in one direction in exchange for free labor twice a month, Cartagena said.

Caltrans estimates that more than 120,000 people have helped tidy state thoroughfares.

According to the agency website, "the Adopt-A-Highway program is not a forum for advertising or public discourse."

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susannah.rosenblatt@latimes.com

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