Building a six-lane toll road through San Onofre State Beach near San Clemente would cause widespread violations of state environmental laws by threatening endangered species, marring natural resources and compromising recreational opportunities, according to a California Coastal Commission report released Friday.
The 236-page analysis conflicts with claims by the Transportation Corridor Agencies that the proposed route for the Foothill South tollway is the least harmful to the popular coastal park out of eight alternatives considered by the Irvine-based agency.
Estimated to cost $875 million, the 16-mile tollway is billed as the final link in Orange County’s network of toll roads, allowing drivers to bypass clogged Interstate 5 in the southern part of the county. It would begin at Oso Parkway in Rancho Santa Margarita, pass through the state park north of the beach and connect with I-5 at Basilone Road south of San Clemente.
“It’s difficult to imagine a more environmentally damaging alternative location,” the commission’s staff concluded. “No measures exist that would enable the proposed alignment to be found consistent with the California Coastal Act.”
Passed by voters in 1972 and made permanent by the Legislature in 1976, the act is designed to regulate development along the state’s 1,100-mile shoreline.
The report is a blow to proponents of the tollway project, which has mushroomed into a statewide conflict over where to draw the line between protecting the environment and building highways to ease traffic congestion.
The new findings set the stage for a major clash at the commission’s Oct. 11 meeting. Hundreds of opponents and supporters of the proposal are expected to turn out at the public hearing in San Pedro.
The staff report recommends that commissioners deny certifying the Foothill South project as being consistent with the coastal act. Certification is required to secure state and federal development permits.
If commissioners accept the staff recommendation, the tollway agency can appeal to the U.S. Department of Commerce because the park sits on land leased at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base.
Tollway officials disagreed with the commission report, saying there were errors and inconsistencies with the assessment. They declined to elaborate.
Jennifer Seaton, a tollway spokeswoman, said the agency questioned the report’s intent because commission staff members declared publicly more than two years ago that the road would violate the Coastal Act. The statement was made before the agency submitted its application for certification.
After the release of the report, tollway board members met in emergency session Friday and decided to offer the state a $100-million mitigation program contingent upon the road’s approval by the Coastal Commission.
The money could be used to build new state campgrounds, restore historic cottages at Crystal Cove State Park and fund a new San Onofre lease with the Marines when the current rental agreement expires in 2021.
“We have to remain optimistic,” said Lance MacLean, a Mission Viejo councilman and chairman of the board that governs the Foothill-Eastern tollway. “We’re offering a good solution for state parks.”
Environmentalists and tollway opponents questioned the offer, saying it was a desperate attempt to win commission support and justify the road’s effects on San Onofre, one of the state’s most popular parks.
“There is no way to mitigate this tollway. The impacts are so severe and widespread,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, director of the California State Parks Foundation. “The idea that money could mitigate this is hard to imagine. There are no 2,100 acres like this in Southern California.”
Tollway officials say the new road is necessary to relieve growing congestion on I-5 through southern Orange County.
The agency’s $20-million environmental review indicates that the route is the least harmful to the park and does not require the costly condemnation of homes and businesses in San Clemente.
But state park officials say construction of the highway could force them to abandon roughly half of San Onofre, which was created by President Nixon and Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1970.
The tollway would divide the northern part of the park lengthwise and pass over a marine estuary that has been designated a nature preserve.
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, archaeological sites, campgrounds, panoramic views of the sea and world-renowned surfing spots, such as Trestles.
The commission report “is a scathing indictment of the Foothill South tollway,” said James Birkelund, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has sued to stop the highway. “This is the beginning of the end for the project.”
The study concludes that the highway would harm or destroy sensitive habitat for six endangered species: the Pacific pocket mouse, the arroyo toad, the southern steelhead trout, the California gnatcatcher, the tidewater goby and the least Bell’s vireo.
The commission’s staff also said the highway could result in the closure of park trails and spoil the experience at nearby San Mateo Campground despite plans to build a sound wall along the toll road.
The report also stated that the tollway agency did not provide enough information to determine the effects on the park’s cultural resources and archaeological sites, such as Panhe, a 4,000-year-old Juaneño Indian village near the proposed route. The sacred site is used today for religious and cultural activities.
Among the affected areas is San Mateo Creek, one of the last unimpaired waterways in Southern California. The creek empties into the Pacific Ocean at the famous Trestles surf spot, the site of national and international competitions. Commission staff said the agency has not adequately shown that the surf break would be protected if the highway were built there.
The report notes that experts disagree over whether the road would disrupt the downstream flow of sediment and rocks that is so important to forming the high-quality waves at Trestles.
Commission staff also disagreed with the agency’s contention that there are no feasible alternatives to the proposed route. Several of the options rejected by TCA, the report stated, are more likely to be consistent with the Coastal Act.
Staff members disagreed with the agency’s assumptions that the high economic costs of the alternatives and disruptions resulting from property condemnations are more important than wildlife habitat and recreational and archaeological resources.
Commission staff members criticized the agency’s promise to build detention basins at I-5 to cleanse contaminated storm runoff before it flows into San Mateo and San Onofre creeks on its way to the ocean.
The report states that the creeks and the ocean off San Onofre are among the cleanest waters in the state and the agency is offering to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.
That finding is odd, Seaton said, because toll road opponents have said that runoff from highways causes pollution and the commission report “contradicts” that position.
“Even though the area might have very good water quality, it’s still helpful to capture runoff, because right now the water goes directly into San Mateo Creek and then the ocean,” she said.