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Rocky Stretch of Road to the Sea

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A plan to develop a four-lane highway stretching 29 miles from the Port of Hueneme to Moorpark is years from completion.

But the battle over how this roadway will affect Las Posas Valley residents along the route is well underway and intensifies as each new piece of the project is developed.

On one side of the fight are transportation planners, who say the expanded highway is necessary to accommodate increasing traffic and growth. They say a key portion of the project--the widening of California 118--is essential to the plan.

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On the other side are Somis homeowners, who argue the massive project is being constructed piecemeal without adequate environmental studies. They fear a widened California 118 would invite more development and heavy truck traffic that would destroy their rural lifestyle.

The anger, accusations and emotions represent a new type of road rage, one not created by drivers but rather by people whose quality of life is threatened by drivers.

“We have a chance to keep the last pristine agricultural valley in Southern California,” said Somis resident John Kerkhoff. “Every time you have a transportation corridor, development springs along it. The agriculture happens to be in the way, and in the process we’ll lose the heart of Somis.”

Progress in developing the highway corridor has been difficult for the public to spot because the work has been carried out for years by different agencies with little acknowledged coordination among them. The corridor runs along state, county and city roads between the port and Moorpark.

But some Las Posas Valley residents contend the agencies have deliberately broken up the project to avoid having to conduct an environmental review of the entire project and its effect on the region. And, they say, the agencies are violating the law by failing to acknowledge how each project fits together to create traffic patterns that no agency has analyzed.

“If they would own up to creating a corridor, instead of treating them as separate little projects, then we could have a full-fledged public discussion about the Las Posas Valley,” said Brett Tibbitts of the citizens’ group Save Our Somis. “We can’t ever get to that discussion because they take the position that there is not a larger plan.”

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California environmental laws “say they have to take into account past, present and probable future projects,” Tibbitts said. “They aren’t doing that. And it’s illegal.”

Project opponents want an environmental study to assess how much development, traffic and pollution would potentially be created in Las Posas Valley by widening the highway.

Tibbitt’s and others frequently refer to the California Environmental Quality Act, which states, “Cumulative impacts can result from individually minor but collectively significant projects taking place over a period of time.”

To bolster its argument, the citizens’ group has hired a law firm that specializes in environmental and land-use law.

“All we are asking is that they do their job and analyze the effects of this project together with other projects,” said Laurel Impett, an urban planner for the law firm. “We think there are some strong legal deficiencies that are un-addressed.”

Impett said a lawsuit has not yet been filed, because the group is hoping to persuade officials to do a full environmental review of the entire 29-mile highway project between the port and Moorpark.

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Officials Cite Safety Concerns

Transportation officials say many of the road improvements are necessary for safety reasons, and that other projects are part of the county’s General Plan written more than a decade ago. They do not agree that widening the roads feeding the rural portions of California 118 would bring more traffic.

Responding to complaints, Bob Sassaman, Caltrans’ district director, said decisions on widening California 118 do not lie with the California Department of Transportation, but with the county’s Transportation Commission. “The only thing I do is make operational improvements.”

Ginger Gherardi, executive director of the Transportation Commission, said the county has always intended to widen California 118. She said the road already has the traffic to warrant widening.

Gherardi said the commission plans an environmental analysis of the California 118 segment of the roadway project. But she said the analysis will exclude roads that connect to the highway.

“It is not warranted to do a study on the 118 that goes all the way to the port,” she said, “because 98% of the trucks on the 118 do not come from the port.”

She said a study to be released later this month will show about 70% of the truck traffic on California 118 stays in the county.

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Planning for widening the roadway could start in a few months, Gherardi said, but she does not expect the project to be completed for at least 15 years.

“Based on traffic that is there now, we are doing long-range planning for what will be needed on that road,” she said.

The Transportation Commission takes direction from the Board of Supervisors, which has already approved widening half of California 118. But the board directed that no widening occur for at least 10 years.

Meanwhile, Caltrans and county public works continue with plans to widen roads that connect with California 118.

Other projects that merge with California 118 already completed are:

* The widening of a two-mile stretch of Los Angeles Avenue from California 126 to just east of the Santa Clara River. The project was completed in 1993.

* The widening of California 118 through downtown Moorpark in the early ‘90s.

* Widening portions of Hueneme Road from the port to the planned Rice Avenue extension in the late ‘80s.

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“These may look minor, but add up all the minors and there are major, significant changes coming,” said Kerkhoff of Somis. “What do you need in order to develop houses? You need access and they are building that access.”

Bruce Smith, the county’s general plan manager, said he understands residents’ fears concerning more traffic and development. But he said the county is bound by law to provide roads with a certain level of service.

Cars need to flow at a certain number per hour or the road is considered “failing” and must be fixed, Smith said.

Even if the county stopped growing, he said, the region will continue to grow “and that traffic needs to go somewhere.”

“The 118 is a state highway, and that is a reality,” Smith said. “If [opponents] had their druthers, Caltrans would hand that road over to the county, which would then force all trucks onto the 101. But you just can’t do that.”

Smith acknowledged there has not been a full-blown evaluation of the most recently proposed project--the widening of three-mile-long Santa Clara Avenue--along with other planned construction.

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He said a process known as “tiering” allows one project’s environmental document to refer to one done previously so work is not repeated. The county’s staff members did an environmental analysis in 1988 when they approved a General Plan. It was updated in 1995.

But that document was written 12 years ago and the county’s anti-growth measures are not taken into account, critics say. No document, they say, addresses how the widened road would affect residents today.

The 45-minute drive along the developing highway from the Port of Hueneme to Moorpark is a crisscross of roads that abut row crops in Oxnard and fields of bright flowers in the inland areas.

The roadway twists in and out of cities, beginning near Port Hueneme, with its cool ocean climate, and heading east to Las Posas Valley, with its dry heat.

Along California 118, which cuts through the valley, there are nurseries and fruit stands every few miles with mountains framing the picturesque landscape. The corridor ends at the junction of California 118 and 23 in Moorpark.

At any hour the corridor is congested with trucks, with as many as 400 a day passing through the Moorpark segment, officials said. If the entire highway is widened, valley residents fear their quiet lifestyle would be ruined.

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Jim Fullmer, county deputy agricultural commissioner, agrees with Somis residents. Fullmer is part of a committee that oversaw the environmental review of the Santa Clara Avenue widening project.

Earlier this month he cast the one dissenting vote against the project.

“These Somis people have really done their homework,” he said. “This is a virtual railroad they are planning to build. I don’t feel any of this is being adequately addressed.”

Fullmer said widening Santa Clara Avenue is unnecessary at this time. The implementation of SOAR growth-control measures throughout the county will diminish the projected population increases in the county, he said.

“Where are all the cars going to come from?” he said. “There is no need to widen that whole road.”

That sentiment is echoed by activists John and Barbara Kerkhoff. The couple are part of Save Our Somis, one of the county’s most devoted community activist groups over the past decade.

John Kerkhoff, an automotive engineer, has proposed a Somis bypass road that would route cars around the California 118 and 34 intersection, situated at the heart of the community. The plan would help keep Somis from being crowded with smog-belching big rigs, he said.

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But Caltrans rejected the idea as too expensive.

Last year the Board of Supervisors recommended Caltrans fix some of the problems on California 118, such as the dangerous S-curve near Mesa School. But again the board asked to delay its widening for at least 10 years.

Supervisor Frank Schillo went even further.

“I’m against widening the whole thing ever,” he said. “That is a beautiful area, why should it become a major thoroughfare?”

He favors widening only that portion of the highway corridor south of the Ventura Freeway. He said this would help reduce the commute time for trucks traveling between the port and the Ventura Freeway.

‘Caltrans Paying No Attention’

This part of the project includes extending Rice Avenue and widening Hueneme Road. It would also re-designate California 1 from Oxnard Boulevard to Rice Avenue.

Supervisor John Flynn agreed with Schillo. But he also supports widening Santa Clara Avenue through Nyeland Acres to make it safer for residents of that community. He opposed Caltrans’ plan to widen California 118 through Las Posas Valley.

“We passed SOAR in this county, but you have Caltrans paying no attention and creating the infrastructure for pre-SOAR days,” he said.

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In contrast, Supervisor Judy Mikels, whose district includes much of California 118, said she believes the highway needs to be widened.

“People have a right to an un-congested highway,” she said. “We will not see growth in my lifetime because there are too many regulations on farmland. Those roads need to be improved to make for good traffic flow.”

Meanwhile, construction moves forward without a comprehensive environmental review of the entire highway project.

But Somis residents vow to continue their fight.

“They know what they are doing; They are subverting the process,” John Kerkhoff said. “Even though this has cost me a lot of time and money at least I know I’ve done my best to try and make them honest.”

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