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Toll road agency wants appeal to be quiet

Times Staff Writer

The agency pushing for a toll road through San Onofre State Beach apparently didn’t like being jeered by opponents during the public hearing at which the state Coastal Commission rejected its project.

In an appeal to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the agency plainly pointed out that it doesn’t want another round of boos and hisses by a boisterous public.

In fact, there’s no reason to hold a public hearing on the appeal for the Foothill South, the Transportation Corridor Agencies argued in a letter to the department late last month.

February’s Coastal Commission hearing “can only be described as a circus atmosphere at which supporters of the project were booed and jeered by project opponents,” said a letter by Robert D. Thornton, an attorney with Nossaman, Guthner, Knox Elliott, on behalf of the Irvine-based TCA.

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The TCA also took umbrage at the hearing’s location at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which it said was 50 miles from the proposed toll road, “a location calculated to maximize attendance by project opponents,” according to the letter.

The TCA’s letter shows an “amazing disregard” for the public process, said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation.

“They seem to believe they are immune and exempt to the rules that everyone else has to play by,” she said. “Part of their job is to listen and hear what the public has to say . . . but they want to quash public dialogue.”

At an estimated cost of at least $875 million, the Foothill South would be the final link in Orange County’s network of tollways. It would run 16 miles from Oso Parkway in Rancho Santa Margarita to Interstate 5 at Basilone Road south of San Clemente.

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Along the way, the route would course through the northern half of the San Onofre park and pass over the Trestles marine estuary, which is a nature preserve. More than 300 of the park’s 2,100 acres would be taken for the road.

Opponents say the highway would ruin the environment and set a dangerous precedent by cutting through a state park.

Advocates counter that the road is needed to help alleviate congestion on I-5 and other thoroughfares in south Orange County.

The lively February meeting drew a crowd of more than 3,500 people. It concluded with commissioners voting 8 to 2 that the proposed Foothill South violated the California Coastal Act, which is designed to regulate development along the state’s 1,100-mile shoreline.

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Goldstein and others are welcome to their opinions, said Lance MacLean, TCA board chairman. But he said the commission’s meeting was too chaotic.

“You had very derogatory signs being waved behind the proponents as they attempted to talk,” he said.

In addition, commission Chairman Patrick Kruer had “every opportunity” to conduct the meeting to allow professional dialogue “but he chose to allow a circus atmosphere,” MacLean said.

More than 100 people -- including more than a dozen elected officials -- who supported the toll road were not given an opportunity to speak at the Del Mar meeting, the letter said.

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But MacLean said he believed opponents were reading too much into the letter.

“The TCA is not opposed to a public hearing, as long as it’s held in Orange County, where the project is located, and as long as it’s conducted in a business-like format,” he said.

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david.reyes@latimes.com

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