Joining the chorus of government agencies voicing serious concerns about the planned San Joaquin Hills tollway, U.S. Interior Department officials said the project’s key environmental document fails to protect wildlife resources and doesn’t note that a critically endangered bird has been seen in its path.
In a recent letter, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service criticized the San Joaquin Hills highway planners for failing to address the impact on the least Bell’s vireo, a tiny songbird on the federal endangered species list, along with several other rare animals. The agency has already raised the same issues regarding the proposed Foothill tollway in southeastern Orange County.
Kim Gould, a wildlife biologist at the agency’s regional office in Laguna Niguel, said the main concerns about the six-lane San Joaquin Hills tollway involve harm to endangered species and wetlands. “But, in a more general sense, we are concerned about the cumulative . . . impacts to public wildlife resources that would result from this corridor, as well as the Eastern and Foothill corridors,” she said.
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected the same environmental document for failing to show that the 17-mile San Joaquin Hills tollway, which would cut through undeveloped canyons between Newport Beach and San Juan Capistrano, would meet laws protecting air quality, wetlands and other environmental resources.
The state’s wildlife agency, the California Department of Fish and Game, has also voiced strong criticism of the planned San Joaquin Hills, Foothill and Eastern tollways, saying the projects would destroy crucial resources for deer, cougars, golden eagles and other animals. Local environmental groups and city council members, especially in Laguna Beach, have made similar objections.
Officials with the Transportation Corridor Agencies, the local group planning the tollways, said Thursday that they will address all the concerns of the agencies and environmentalists about the San Joaquin Hills tollway in a report by Feb. 1.
Included will be new, specific proposals to protect wildlife, such as restoration of wetlands and replacement of other damaged habitat, said Steve Letterly, the tollway agency’s environmental-impact manager.
The tollway planners said the opposition from the government agencies is not surprising.
“In my opinion, it is expected for a project of this size given that it does have impacts on biotic resources. Therefore those agencies will be concerned,” Letterly said.
Letterly acknowledged that the tollways will have adverse impacts on wildlife, but he said the agency is trying to minimize them. He added that wildlife officials fail to note that Orange County and its cities have come up with a countywide plan to preserve large connected areas of open space for wildlife.
“We have made planning efforts to leave extensive networks of open space . . . and they will not be affected by the development of this corridor,” he said.
The controversial environmental impact report for the San Joaquin Hills tollway goes before the tollway board for hearings on Feb. 14 and 28 and a vote on March 14. The $667-million highway, already three years behind schedule, is slated for construction late this year or early next year.
“Our schedule has not changed. We feel we can respond to these comments and maintain our (construction) schedule,” Letterly said.
Tollway planners have asked to meet with the EPA’s regional administrator in San Francisco to address that agency’s concerns. They also have scheduled meetings with state and federal wildlife officials.
Both federal agencies have advised tollway planners to prepare one sweeping environmental document to address all the threats posed by major transportation projects in the county.
The tollway group’s executive director, William C. Woollett Jr., said in a letter sent to the EPA last week that the demand is “a radical departure from 20 years of legal precedent.”
“It does not make logical sense,” Letterly said. “The San Joaquin does not connect to the Foothill or the Eastern. There is no reason to put those projects together.”
The EPA also told the agency to consider alternatives to the tollway, such as changes in zoning to restrict development. Major housing projects, including the Irvine Co.'s 2,600-home exclusive Irvine Coast development, are planned in the area.
Woollett wrote back that the EPA was making a “serious breach of the EPA’s statutory role and professionalism” and has “a very biased and misleading view” of the project.
“There is simply no place for strong-armed federal intervention in local and regional governance,” he said in his letter to the federal agency.
EPA officials had not yet finished reviewing Woollett’s letter, but spokesman Al Zemsky said “our authority is very clear,” detailed in federal laws that protect air quality and resources.
The Fish and Wildlife Service warned in its Dec. 20 letter that it has “major concerns” over the “proposed, unmitigated destruction of extremely high-quality riparian habitat” used by vireos and “a large number of additional sensitive, significant populations of plant and animal species.”
Other rare animals that were not adequately studied or protected include the gnatcatcher, a bird expected to be added to the endangered list soon, two rare lizards, a species of hawk, two rare marsh birds, two types of bats and an endangered pocket mouse, the wildlife agency’s letter says. Two rare plants also are there.
“These habitats are unique in Orange County and Southern California and are extremely sensitive,” says the letter, signed by Jonathon Deason, the Interior Department’s director of environmental affairs.
The vireos, five-inch gray songbirds, migrate to Southern California from Baja California every March to nest along creeks. Once found throughout the West Coast, only about 400 pairs remain in the United States because more than 90% of their habitat has been destroyed.
Consultants last spring saw a male vireo in the path of the planned San Joaquin Hills tollway, but the information was not included in the environmental impact report, Gould said.
“The problem is this thing has been piecemealed to death and has never been revised to include more current information, such as the least Bell’s vireo,” Gould said.
The tollway agency disputes claims that the road’s path includes breeding habitat for vireos.
“This was a single male by itself, it was transitory, and there was no nesting habitat within that area,” Letterly said. “Also, it was sighted in Bonita Reservoir outside of what we see as the potential area of effect.”
The presence of endangered species does not stop a project, but federal law requires developers or road builders to avoid harming them, especially if federal monies or lands are involved, as they are with the tollways.
The federal agency’s biologists are especially concerned that the San Joaquin Hills tollway would damage coastal lands linking Bonita Canyon with Newport Bay.
Animals must be able to move freely between the two areas to keep the upper bay, which is a state wildlife preserve, viable for birds and animals. For example, it would upset the balance of predators if coyotes were blocked from the bay, and 70% of the world’s light-footed clapper rails, an extremely rare bird, would probably die off.
The biologists noted that the link between Bonita Canyon and Newport Bay can be preserved if tollway planners replant nearby agricultural fields with native vegetation and provide a means for wildlife to cross MacArthur Boulevard and University Drive. Letterly said the agency is making changes in the San Joaquin Hills plan that will preserve wildlife paths and provide for wildlife movement.