Tollway Opponents Are Down--the Fight’s All but Over

The night had an air of melancholy to it, the sad reality that engulfs you when you watch someone who’s fought the good fight and has nothing left to do but talk a good game while swinging helplessly at the air.

Others who were there may disagree, but the unmistakable sense of the jig’s being up hung heavy from where I sat Wednesday night in the Laguna Beach City Hall chamber.

About 100 residents had gathered, wanting to hear what was left to fight in their long struggle to keep the six-lane toll road from eating up part of Laguna Canyon.


Lately, the news has been very bad for the anti-tollway folks. The federal government ruled last week that even putting the gnatcatcher on the endangered species list wouldn’t be enough to stop the road. This week, more than $1 billion in bonds were sold to finance the project.

It was a devastating left-right combination.

On Wednesday night, Mayor Lida Lenney, as ardent a foe of the road as you’ll find, sounded more conflicted than she ever has. In one breath she said, emphatically, “I’m confident this road is not going to be built,” and in the next, said, “We’re losing this battle.” By the time I talked to her Thursday afternoon, she said: “I think it’s clear we’re losing, and I’m not confident. Up until now I have been.”

Local activist Norm Grossman told the audience that seven lawsuits are pending, but he noted that “sooner or later, we’re going to run out of lawsuits.”

Anita Mangels urged the group to press on, zeroing in on the less-than-favorable bond rating assigned to the project--as if to soothe the pain of knowing that investors had so quickly gobbled up the bonds.

Adding to the sense of what might have been, Lenney hearkened to the past, to the night in December of 1987 when a half-dozen people had met in the same room and wondered if they could stop the Irvine Co. from building 3,200 homes in the canyon. The next spring 8,000 people marched in the canyon, and, eventually, Donald Bren relented and agreed to sell the land to the city instead of building on it.

That had been a huge victory for environmentalists. One senses the memory of that has perhaps fueled a false sense of latent political power and public support that would eventually stop the tollway.

The current fight has been long and nasty, and I’m sure the tollway agency and many private citizens are enjoying watching the environmentalists lose this one.

“Laguna Beach lives in a glass house with one-way glass,” says Norman Murray, a retired Mission Viejo councilman who served on the board of the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency.

“You cannot withdraw yourself into a little enclave separate and apart from the rest of the world and say, ‘We’re totally right and you’re totally wrong.’ That’s just not the way civilization works. If it had worked that way, we wouldn’t have had Christopher Columbus discovering America, no California or Orange County.” Murray says he doesn’t resent Laguna Beach, but he adds that some of its officials “have a cloistered viewpoint of the world, and it’s hard for me to tolerate that.”

At the Wednesday meeting, the leaders were exhorting people not to consider the tollway a “done deal.” But for the life of me, I couldn’t track their blueprint for stopping it. They said they hoped public opinion would persuade officeholders to switch support, but it’s very late in the game for that.

They talked about taking their case to California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, but what can the senators do? They talked about going right to the White House, but with the tollway agency supporters using buzzwords like jobs and infrastructure, it’s difficult to picture the Clinton Administration intervening. Nor is it even clear that the White House wants to stop the project, given that “Friend of Bill” and local home builder Kathryn Thompson would be whispering in the President’s ear that the road is a great idea.

So it goes for the anti-tollway group--enemies all around and time running out.

Newport Beach Councilwoman Jean H. Watt opposes the road. I asked her to cook up a scenario that, at this late date, could stop the road. She admitted that it is tough to do but said maybe one city council at a time might drop its support. Even as she stretched out that plot line, she acknowledged its implausibility.

“If some kind of civil disobedience is all that can stand in the way of this thing and if people feel strongly about it, I’m almost ready to get out there and lie on the runway myself,” Watt said. “I think the only way I can think of that conceivably could get the attention of people who are hung up with the process, and turn that backwards, would be for some number of citizens in Orange County to get out there bodily and stand in the way of the road. I’m not sure what that number would be? The 8,000 that marched on Laguna Canyon?”

Perhaps Orange County doesn’t mind the thought of six lanes of concrete transforming Laguna Canyon into turnpike scenery. Perhaps it doesn’t mind the fact that although Caltrans wants people to car-pool, tollway officials need as much traffic as possible to pay for the project.

The environmentalists are acting like people desperately trying to hang onto a dear friend.

Why they could never get enough other people to see the worthiness of their cause is enough to cast a pall over any night.

Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.