Despite a stinging defeat before the California Coastal Commission, Orange County toll road officials licked their wounds Thursday and began weighing options for building their six-lane highway through one of the state’s most popular parks.
Following 12 hours of public testimony and debate Wednesday, commissioners decided 8 to 2 that building the Foothill South tollway through San Onofre State Beach would violate environmental laws that regulate development along 1,100 miles of California coastline.
“The news was disappointing,” said Lance MacLean, a board chairman for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which has spent years and tens of millions of dollars planning the Foothill South.
The toll road agency is expected to appeal the commission’s decision to the federal government today, though it may ultimately decide to change the route of the highway instead.
Meanwhile, tollway opponents were heartened by the commission’s decision. They said the vote preserves the integrity of the California Coastal Act and sends a signal to private and government interests hoping to use state parkland for projects.
The State Parks Foundation estimates that there are 110 active or proposed uses by private and public interests that threaten 72 state parks. They include small takings of parkland by private property owners, as well as casinos, dairies, desalination plants, utility lines, municipal streets and the Foothill South toll road.
“It was a shining day for the commission,” said Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League. “Not only did they do the right thing intuitively by keeping a highway out of a park, they did the right thing on a legal level. Otherwise, they would have blown a hole in the Coastal Act.”
Estimated to cost at least $875 million to build, the Foothill South would have run 16 miles from Oso Parkway in Rancho Santa Margarita to Interstate 5 at Basilone Road south of San Clemente -- a final link in Orange County’s network of toll roads.
The highway would have cut 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 have be taken for the road.
The parkland is home to several endangered species and contains an unspoiled stretch of San Mateo Creek, the 161-space San Mateo Campground and archaeological sites, such as the Juaneno Indian village of Panhe. The nearby beach is famous for two surf spots, Trestles and Old Man’s.
Agency officials told commissioners Wednesday that the tollway was needed to accommodate development in southern Orange County and provide congestion relief on Interstate 5, the heavily traveled corridor between Los Angeles and San Diego. No alternatives are available, they said, and steps would be taken to protect San Onofre’s environment.
But in their decision, commissioners overwhelming sided with a recommendation from their staff to reject the turnpike because it would violate the California Coastal Act, which is designed to protect endangered species, wetlands, archaeological sites, public access and recreational resources.
“This project looks like something from the 1950s,” said Commissioner Sara Wan of Malibu, who voted against the tollway. “Putting a massive project in an environmentally sensitive area -- it’s inconceivable.”
Commissioners Mike Reilly, Mary Shallenberger, Steve Blank, Patrick Kruer, Khatchik Achadjian, Bonnie Neely and Larry Clark also voted to reject the project; William Burke and Steve Kram voted for it.
The commission’s decision may have been swayed by Ralph Faust, the panel’s former chief legal counsel for 20 years.
Faust disputed transit officials’ assertions that the project met the balancing provisions of the act because the agency had vowed to offset adverse environmental impacts prohibited by the law.
Tollway officials said the benefits would have included a new evacuation route in case of a serious accident at the San Onofre nuclear power plant, adding filters to I-5 to treat polluted runoff, a $100-million grant to improve state parks and better access to the coast for residents from the Inland Empire.
“You can’t buy compliance with a $100-million offer,” Faust told commissioners.
Citing Faust’s remarks, Commissioner Reilly said the agency “concedes significant impacts that can’t be mitigated alone.” There is “no legal way for us to concur with this project.”
Tollway officials are expected to appeal to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Federal law applies to San Onofre because it is on land leased from the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. The TCA has 30 days to do so.
Commission officials say that since 1977, there have been more than a dozen such appeals, mostly by oil companies. About half the decisions were overturned.
Sarah Christie, the Coastal Commission’s legislative director, said the Commerce secretary must make findings that the Foothill South basically complies with the Coastal Act, a process that can take a year.
Even if the decision is overturned, Christie said, tollway officials would still have to obtain a development permit from the state, which would not be bound by the secretary’s decision.
MacLean said that when the TCA board meets next week, its members may discuss the possibility of changing the tollway route to a location outside the jurisdiction of the Coastal Commission.
“Of the 16 miles to complete the toll road,” MacLean said, “only 2.2 miles are in the coastal zone. We can change the route, but that’s just an idea, and of course, we will have to do studies.”
James Birkelund, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has sued to stop the tollway, said opponents would fight any appeal and further efforts to build the highway.
“The decision sends a strong message to the tollway agency that destroying a coastal park is unacceptable and illegal,” Birkelund said. “This is a victory not just for San Onofre but for parks all across California.”
Because of urbanization and the state’s growing population, parks set aside for the “health, inspiration and education” of the people of California are being increasingly coveted by transportation agencies, local governments, utilities and other interests as potentially cheap sources of land for projects.
California’s development and business interests contend that parkland should not be off-limits to civic projects if the environment is protected and there are no reasonable alternatives. Under current law, parks can be used for such purposes, but the state must declare the property no longer necessary for conservation, and the Legislature must agree.
“We absolutely think the commission’s decision is an important deterrent,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, executive director of the State Parks Foundation.
“It is a signal to those who want to use parkland that they will face a hard road. These are not paths of least resistance.”