The California Coastal Commission handed environmentalists a major victory and rejected the pleas of motorists Wednesday, voting down plans to build a six-lane toll road through San Onofre State Beach, a popular preserve in north San Diego County known for its scenery and famous surf spots.
Before a boisterous crowd of more than 3,500 people, commissioners decided 8 to 2 that the proposed Foothill South project violates the California Coastal Act, which is designed to regulate development along the state’s 1,100-mile shoreline. They reached the conclusion following hours of sometimes heated public testimony that pitted protecting the environment against the need to relieve traffic congestion in south Orange County.
The decision was a major setback for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which has spent years and tens of millions of dollars preparing to construct the 16-mile tollway as an alternative to Interstate 5.
Tollway officials can appeal the commission’s decision to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce because San Onofre State Beach sits on leased federal land within the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base.
Commission officials say that since 1977, there have been 13 such appeals, mostly by oil companies. About half the decisions were overturned.
The vote followed hours of testimony from the crowd, of whom 2,500 made formal requests to speak, the largest number for a hearing in the commission’s more than 30 years of operation.
Some arrived by bus, brought by surf-industry companies opposed to the project. Others came as members of construction unions that support it. Some in the crowd carried surfboards as a symbol of protest. Others dressed as if attending a long-awaited football game.
The noisy crowd sat in rows of chairs and banks of bleachers at the rear of Wyland Hall at Del Mar Fairgrounds to participate in a long-awaited showdown over a road proposal that has generated intense public interest across the state. The controversy has drawn in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who endorsed the road in January, other statewide elected officials and local governments across Southern California.
After almost seven hours of public testimony, commissioners still had not made a decision. The panel could postpone its decision.
At issue is where to draw the line between protecting the environment and building highways to ease congestion. Some suggest the fate of the road will go far to shape future decisions on where highways can be built.
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. Along the way, the route would course through the northern half of San Onofre and pass over the Trestles marine estuary, which is a nature preserve. About 320 of the park’s 2,100 acres would be taken for the road.
Opponents of the road say the highway would ruin the environment.
Supporters argue it is critical to relieve overburdened I-5 in southern Orange County.
On Wednesday morning, surfing-related companies, including Billabong, Etnies, Vans, Reef and GFH Boards, bused hundreds of tollway opponents to the fairgrounds. Cars of protesters bore signs saying “Honk to Save Trestles” and “Save the Park.” Many among the opponents wore blue T-shirts proclaiming “Save the Park, Stop the Tollroad.”
“There are only so many state parks left, and we really should not pave over them,” said Mike Matey, 40, of San Diego who frequently camps and surfs at San Onofre.
Heading inside the pavilion was Armando Esparza, secretary for Laborers’ Union Local 652. He was part of a group of more than 100 union members and tollway supporters who had traveled to Del Mar from the Inland Empire, Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange County.
“Maybe at the end of the day, this project will mean more jobs, but it also will help relieve congestion,” Esparza said. “Look at our freeways now -- the 91 and the 710. They are all congested. People are now coming in from San Diego County to work in Orange County. That creates a bottleneck on the 5.”
Just outside Wyland Hall, hundreds of people milled about in a carnival atmosphere. Booths set up by the Sierra Club, the Surfrider Foundation and other environmental groups dispensed anti-tollway literature while concessionaires sold coffee, mochas and lattes.
Inside, Rebecca Robles, a Juaneno Indian from San Clemente, and half a dozen other Native Americans sang a ceremonial song to commissioners. Afterward, Robles gave an emotional speech about Panhe, an old Indian site at San Onofre that is the Juaneno band’s ancestral home.
“I encourage you, I implore you to uphold the California Coastal Act,” Robles said. “Panhe is one of the remaining sites where we can enjoy our spiritual individuality. I ask you to protect this sacred site.”
Supporters of the Foothill South testified that the road is needed to accommodate development in southern Orange County and take some of the burden off Interstate 5, the heaviest traveled corridor between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Officials of the Transportation Corridor Agencies, the organization based in Irvine that operates the toll roads, said steps would be taken to protect San Onofre’s sensitive wildlife habitat.
The road should not affect San Onofre’s surf spots, they added. Tollway officials also contend that the park’s quality already has been degraded by nearby utility towers, a nuclear power plant, railroad trestles near the beach as well as I-5 and Christianitos Road.
The alternative to building the road -- widening the interstate -- would destroy more than 1,230 homes and businesses and be too costly for the state to build, they assert.
“The 241 will provide congestion relief in one of our most important transportation corridors in the state,” said Tom Margrow, the TCA’s chief executive.
Opponents countered that the road would destroy habitat for half a dozen threatened or endangered species, including the Pacific pocket mouse. They also said it would degrade a popular campground and create a concrete eyesore in the center of the park, which stretches from coastal bluffs to inland canyons.
Surfers worry that the road could block erosion from the San Mateo Creek watershed, which they believe contributes to the world-class surfing conditions at Trestles, a venue for major contests.
In September, the Coastal Commission’s staff recommended against approval of the project.
Its 236-page report conflicts with assertions from the TCA that the proposed route is the least harmful to the park out of eight options. The commission staff report said it was hard to imagine a more environmentally damaging route.
Mark Delaplaine, who directed the commission’s staff analysis, said the highway would violate provisions of the Coastal Act related to endangered species, wetlands, public access, recreation, surfing, Indian sites and greenhouse gas emissions.
The agency, he said, has not adequately considered alternatives to the Foothill South, such as improving Interstate 5, a possibility the TCA ruled out as too costly for the state.
Peter Douglas, the commission’s longtime executive director, said the “toll road project is not only inconsistent with the law, it also raises fundamental questions about what of kind of environmental and social future we want for our coastal communities, our families, our children and theirs.”
Environmentalists also said that studies show that widening I-5 can accommodate traffic growth as well as the tollway and be accomplished using innovative designs that vastly reduce the need to condemn property.
The TCA has not adequately studied the alternative, they say.
“This is important for San Onofre and all other state parks that are being eyed for infrastructure development,” testified Elizabeth Goldstein, executive director of the State Parks Foundation. “If the toll road is permitted to proceed, we will all be spending decades in rooms like this all across the state fighting to protect yet another special place.”