An agreement to protect wildlife was announced Friday between the toll road agency and a state agency on the proposed extension of an Orange County toll road, a controversial link that would cut through a popular state park and famed surf spot.
Proponents said the agreement helps breathe new life into the proposed toll road extension, which has divided politicians, environmentalists and transportation planners for years. Opponents dismissed it as insignificant.
Although the Foothill South project was rejected by the state Coastal Commission after a clamorous public hearing in February, the toll road agency views the agreement as a substantial victory. The agency has appealed the commission's decision.
Lance MacLean, chairman of the board that oversees the county's toll roads, called it a major step toward satisfying environmental requirements for the 16-mile proposed road that will cut through San Onofre State Beach.
The agreement calls for creating, enhancing or restoring 57 acres near creeks as a mitigation measure because 23 acres along the proposed route would be permanently affected, said Marilyn Fluharty, a senior environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Game.
She said the toll road agency would need additional permits because the agreement is limited to stream beds and bird habitat along several creeks in the area, but not for the entire route. About 14 acres would be temporarily disturbed during construction, Fluharty said.
The Transportation Corridor Agencies -- which operates most of the tollways in Orange County -- has restored, created and preserved more than 100 acres under previous agreements with the state Department of Fish and Game for prior road projects, transportation agency officials said.
Despite the Coastal Commission's decision, tollway proponents have earned several victories in recent months concerning the road's potential effect on wildlife.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determined last year that steelhead trout would not be affected by the road, and last week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the project complies with the Endangered Species Act.
Opponents say that the thoroughfare would ruin the environment and compromise the state park and the famed Trestles surf spot, which has been celebrated in songs and movies.
Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League, called the state agreement a technical approval that lacked regulatory teeth because it's "procedural and routine."
"Basically, it is a notification requirement where the applicant tells the department what they are doing, what the impacts are and these are the mitigations," Silver said. "It doesn't evaluate the need for the project nor does it look at alternatives of the project to protect resources."
In contrast, the Coastal Commission has absolute protections for wildlife under the state's Coastal Act, an "entirely different standard," Silver said.
MacLean sees it otherwise.
"We feel no species will be jeopardized by this work," MacLean said. "We're going to be good stewards with the environment."
Foothill-Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency board member and Lake Forest Councilman Peter Herzog said last week's opinion by the federal wildlife service was significant, especially in view of the project's criticism by coastal commissioners and opponents.
"The new opinion was obviously an extensive review and some of the opponents tried to dismiss our own biological staff as if we were going to take out habitat," Herzog said.
The issue has been sensitive for the Transportation Corridor Agencies which has continued planning for the project hoping the federal government will overturn the Coastal Commission's decision.
The U.S. Department of Commerce has the final say on the appeal.
At the commission's February meeting, Commissioner Sara Wan of Malibu took exception to the Foothill-Eastern transportation agency's environmental reports, saying that habitat mitigations were not consistent with safeguards for endangered species.
She said that toll road officials had used "faulty science."
This week Herzog pushed back.
"We have the wildlife service saying our project doesn't jeopardize wildlife. That's not the TCA talking, that's from the federal wildlife service."