Over the objections of environmentalists and state officials, directors of Orange County’s toll road agency on Thursday approved construction of a six-lane highway through San Onofre State Beach -- a popular coastal park that President Nixon helped set aside in 1970 as a haven from urbanization.
The 16-mile project, which has drawn a lukewarm response from the Schwarzenegger administration, also would pass through the Donna O’Neill Land Conservancy, a 1,200-acre open-space preserve created by Rancho Mission Viejo, one of the largest landholders in southern Orange County.
If the highway is built, it will be by far the largest project of its kind put through a state park. And park officials fear it could open the door to other significant encroachments statewide. State parkland has been proposed as sites for dozens of projects, including desalination plants, rail lines and utilities.
Tollway supporters say, however, that the highway is needed to relieve congestion on Interstate 5, whose traffic is projected to increase 60% by 2025.
The years-long controversy involves a clash between two major interests in California: easing traffic and protecting the environment. And it is not expected to end soon. The tollway would require approval from several federal agencies, the U.S. Navy and the California Coastal Commission. It very likely will also face multiple lawsuits.
After extensive study, including a $17-million environmental review, board members for the Transportation Corridor Agencies in Irvine voted 12 to 3 to approve the route for the Foothill South extension.
The TCA is a governmental body composed of elected county and city officials. Although the proposed route would extend into San Diego County, the agency has jurisdiction over the road.
“This is a monumental step for improving mobility in Orange County,” said Ken Ryan, a Yorba Linda councilman and TCA board chairman.
Opponents contend that the proposed tollway represents a serious threat to open space, especially in fast-growing Southern California.
“Today’s decision to pave over a state park is unacceptable,” said James Birkelund, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We will be challenging this ill-conceived and illegal project.”
Estimated to cost $875 million, the tollway would begin at Oso Parkway in Rancho Santa Margarita and connect with I-5 at Basilone Road south of San Clemente. It would be the final link in the TCA’s planned 65-mile network of tollways.
Because San Onofre State Beach is on land leased from Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, the U.S. Navy must be asked to grant an easement. The TCA envisions finishing the highway by 2011.
Tollway officials have concluded that the proposed route -- one of eight options studied -- would do the least harm to natural resources and avoid the costly possibility of condemning hundreds of homes and businesses in San Clemente.
“This is the right plan at the right time,” said Jim Thor, a TCA board member and Rancho Santa Margarita councilman. “We need to get the Foothill South built.”
The tollway agency plans to reduce the environmental impacts by using sound walls, filters for contaminated highway runoff and protections for sensitive wildlife habitat.
With 2.7 million visitors a year, San Onofre is the fifth most popular destination in the state’s 278-park system. It contains endangered species, archeological sites, campgrounds, panoramic views of the sea and world-renowned surf spots.
When the San Diego County park was created in 1970, Nixon noted the beauty of the landscape and said he did not want the pressures of population growth “to clutter up” the park.
“We must leave a legacy that goes beyond good housing, vital industries and strong defense,” he said.
The proposed highway would split the northern part of San Onofre lengthwise before crossing over a marine estuary set aside as a nature preserve.
Opponents say the road would threaten the park’s aesthetics, wildlife habitat and watersheds, such as relatively unspoiled San Mateo Creek. They also say the highway could degrade the Trestles surf spot.
If the road’s effects are severe, state park officials say it could force them to abandon the northern half of San Onofre.
Birkelund, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, represents a coalition of environmental groups opposed to the road. They include the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the California State Parks Foundation, the Surfrider Foundation and the Endangered Habitats League.
He said the groups would probably sue within 30 days to challenge the adequacy of the TCA’s environmental impact report. The state attorney general’s office and Department of Parks and Recreation also have considered legal action.
“The people of California and the state itself set up the state park system to permanently protect and provide recreation and open space for its residents, not for roads, homes or other private or commercial interests,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the State Parks Foundation. Opposed to the proposed route were TCA board members Larry Agran, an Irvine councilman; Lara Anderson, a Dana Point councilwoman; and Lisa Bist, a Santa Ana councilwoman.
Bist and Agran called for alternatives that would not involve San Onofre, such as widening Interstate 5 and improving mass transit.
As TCA board members considered their decision Thursday, the Schwarzenegger administration issued a statement about the proposed route.
“Administration officials are very disappointed that the TCA was unable to find an alternative alignment acceptable to the military,” according to the statement signed by State Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman and Sunne Wright McPeak, secretary of business, transportation and housing.
“We understand the desperate need to reduce traffic congestion in this area, but we are equally concerned about losing valuable state park land.”
Chrisman and McPeak promised to work with the military, the TCA and government officials to reduce the effects on San Onofre if the highway is built and to explore alternatives should plans change.
Opponents say the TCA did not adequately consider alternatives, such as improving Interstate 5 and a beltway that would go through southern O.C.
TCA officials say the other options have been ruled out.
“We need to send a strong message that the alternatives have been studied. This has been done over and over and over,” said Peter Herzog, a TCA board member and Lake Forest councilman.