In the latest setback to the backers of a proposed toll road extension through south Orange County, the Department of Commerce on Wednesday announced that it would hold a public hearing on the controversial project at UC Irvine.
The decision to allow the public to be heard either July 24 or 25 at Donald Bren Center was hailed by toll road opponents, who want to stop construction of the proposed 16-mile turnpike that would cut through San Onofre State Beach near a famed surfing break.
The Transportation Corridor Agencies, which appealed to the Commerce Department after the California Coastal Commission rejected the project, wanted to avoid another raucous meeting like the one held in San Diego County at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in February. The turnout of more than 3,500 people, the largest in commission history, created what the toll road agency later described as a "circus atmosphere."
"We're excited that it's in Orange County," said Mark Rauscher, a spokesman for the Surfrider Foundation, which opposes the toll road.
"We're looking forward to getting in front of the Department of Commerce and having the public express their views on the project."
He cited a poll commissioned by opponents indicating that the majority of Orange County voters are against the road. The issue has drawn widespread attention, with more than 25,000 comments received by the Commerce Department.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a project supporter, did not renew the state Parks Commission terms of actor-director Clint Eastwood and Bobby Shriver, the governor's brother-in-law. Both attributed the move to their toll road opposition, though the governor's office has denied it.
Opponents say the $1.3-billion Foothill South tollway would sully San Onofre State Beach and Trestles, a famous surfing break, while proponents maintain that the road is needed to help alleviate congestion on the 5 Freeway and other Orange County thoroughfares.
Lance MacLean, chairman of the toll road board overseeing the project, said that, in view of the numerous environmental studies and public hearings already held, there wasn't a need for any new information to be presented at another hearing.
But he is happy that UC Irvine was selected as the site because, he said, it will offer Orange County residents, whom he described as "the most affected," an opportunity to express their opinions.
"I'm just hopeful that it will be conducted in a more businesslike format rather than the circus it became in Del Mar," MacLean said.
"People were trying to provide scientific research and they were heckled while banners waved in the background. It needs a formal business setting, where both sides can lay out their information," MacLean said.
Despite the Coastal Commission's rejection of the project, its proponents have achieved some recent environmental victories. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determined last year that steelhead trout would not be affected by the road, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently said the project complies with the Endangered Species Act. But opponents say that allowing a toll road through a state park sets a dangerous precedent.
"Because it impacts more than just Orange County, we expect a big turnout," Rauscher said of the upcoming hearing. "This is the fifth most popular state park in the state, and that's a resource for all people."