Proposed traffic signal tears apart community

A proposed traffic signal has pitted Emerald Bay residents against one another, with supporters intending to pursue the installation, regardless of opposition from their neighbors.

Supporters of the signal say it is the cornerstone of the proposal packaged by the Emerald Bay Special Services District and Emerald Bay Community Assn. boards as a safety project.

Opponents say they would support other elements of the proposed project, which include landscaping, relocating the gate house further back on Emerald Bay property, adding an ingress lane to Shamrock Road, and extending turning and merging lanes on the highway.

"I am totally in favor of making the highway safer; I am just opposed to the signal," said Steve Rabago, who collected 199 opposition signatures. "The community should make the improvements related to safety and then monitor them for five years."

The council denied an exemption from a Coastal Development Permit, required to install the signal, at the May 15 City Council meeting.

The council agreed to work with Emerald Bay on other improvements, but no formal agreement has been signed.

Emerald Bay boards spokesman Harry Woloson said this week that options are being researched, but no decisions have been made.

"They can still apply for a Coastal Development Permit for the signal," said City Manager John Pietig. "They can also apply to Caltrans for a project without the signal, modifying the project or submit a new application.

"I have not heard that Caltrans would not entertain a version of the project that did not include the signal."

Caltrans spokeswoman Gloria Roberts said the proposed signal and road improvements were approved as one project in an encroachment permit, issued in Oct. of 2011 and terminating Dec. 31.

The approval was subject to the City Council's decision on the coastal permit exemption request, which is not appealable to the California Coastal Commission.

"The signal is the heart and soul of the project," Woloson said. "Without it, we deplete the money, but the same safety issues would still exist."

However, the proposed improvements would be beneficial with or without the signal, according to the Fehr and Peers independent report commissioned by the city.

Conversely, the signal would not be a benefit without the other improvements, according to the report.

Roberts said Caltrans believes the project would enhance safety, but the intersection does not meet the accident threshold — five fatal or serious accidents in a year — for Caltrans funding.

The Emerald Bay boards have agreed to put up the money for the project because Caltrans will not. The total cost is estimated to be $3.6 million, about one-quarter to be paid by the association, the remainder by the district,

The exact amount spent to date not available, but considerable, Woloson said.

"I am opposed to spending all that money without a vote [of association members]," said Emerald Bay resident Peter Collisson.

In an e-mail to city officials, one Emerald Bay signal opponent claimed residents were told that the signal was an emergency safety issue, exempting it from a community vote.

"My husband was on the board during the fire of 1993 and the floods thereafter," wrote Mary McDonald. "Those were bona fide emergencies.

"I know what an emergency looks like, and I think we all know that this light is not what was intended to qualify as an emergency in order to exempt a vote from the association, according to our CC&Rs (covenants, conditions and restrictions)."

Woloson said a vote would serve no purpose because legal advisers informed the boards they were obliged to correct a known safety hazard. However, there is not legal prohibition to a vote, he said.

At the May 15 council meeting, Collisson described the project as a political expedient to avoid a vote, not a life-and-death issue.

He said it began as a pricey association beautification project that required a vote by association members. Re-characterizing it a safety project eliminated the requirement and allowed the association to tap into the services district's funds — several million dollars in reserves.

"There are very few things under the special district's powers that they could spend it on, without simultaneously opening the gates to public access, which they didn't want to do," said Collisson.

Woloson said the district never considered aesthetics in its decision to fund the project.

"What makes all this distressing is the strain on friendships," Rabago said. "People are emotionally committed and not willing to look at alternatives that might satisfy a larger plurality of the community."

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