Bush Signs Bill Allowing California's Tougher environmental rules to apply to Orange County tollway proposed in State Park
By David Reyes, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
January 30, 2008
In a blow to toll road planners in Orange County, President Bush signed an amended military bill this week that would require them to follow potentially restrictive state environmental laws.
The tollway, which would complete Orange County's network of turnpikes, would cut across San Onofre State Beach, a popular camping and surfing spot.
The amendment to the military authorization bill was pushed by Rep. Susan A. Davis (D-San Diego).
Without it, the toll road agency could have avoided following restrictive California environmental laws.
The Transportation Corridor Agencies, which proposed the 16-mile Foothill South turnpike through southern Orange County, sought a federal exemption to avoid state environmental laws and streamline the approval and regulatory process for the controversial road.
Toll road officials and supporters have said the road would result in traffic relief for the southern part of the county, but opponents say it would affect campgrounds, wild lands, Native American burial sites and famous surf spots, including Trestles.
The estimated $875-million project is scheduled to be reviewed Feb. 6 by the state Coastal Commission, which meets at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. It is considered a critical vote for the project.
In a prepared statement, Davis said the road would have a "devastating impact" on the "unique environment" and recreational resources at San Mateo campground and Trestles Beach, one of California's premier surfing breaks.
"There is no reason why it should have received a special exemption," Davis said.
San Onofre, a state park, is on land leased from Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base. The exemption had allowed federal law to apply to the controversial project when it conflicted with state law, which is often more stringent.
Lance MacLean, a Mission Viejo councilman and chairman of the board that governs the Foothill-Eastern tollway, said the agency sought the exemption because it needed to determine which authority -- state or federal -- it was to follow for the proposed route.
"We needed to know what laws would be enforced on federal property," MacLean said. "Opponents will call it special legislation. It was not special legislation but clarifying legislation."
Removal of the federal exemption no longer allows the agency to defend lawsuits against the Foothill South by contending that state courts have no jurisdiction, said James Birkelund, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a tollway foe.
"The big picture here is the toll road agency has been trying to avoid both state and federal environmental laws and has lobbied for and gotten riders to defense bills to do so," Birkelund said. "We applaud Davis because the law now ensures that this project will comply with state law as with any other project."
Toll road's damage estimate downsized
But it could trigger the extinction of one species
By: DAVE DOWNEY
North County Times
January 29, 2007
In a report filed over the weekend in preparation for a key commission hearing next week, the commission's staff downgraded, from 66 acres to 50 acres, its estimate of how much of the potential habitat would be destroyed.
But California Coastal Commission staffers say that the toll road would still do "irreparable harm" to a sensitive coastal wetland, home to a half-dozen imperiled animals.
But the damage still would be unacceptable and the project could trigger the extinction of one species, the report says. The Orange County transportation agency looking to build the road strongly disputes that conclusion.
Meanwhile, highway opponents - environmentalists, surfers and frequent state-park visitors - have launched a grass-roots online campaign in advance of next week's meeting. More than 500 people posted videos on YouTube.
"It's not right," said Robin Everett, conservation organizer for the Sierra Club in Orange County, in one video. "State parks should not be used as warehouses for future development."
The hearing is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Feb. 6 and take all day at Wyland Hall on the Del Mar Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd. in Del Mar. Commission staff said they expected more than 2,000 supporters and opponents to attend.
The report is the commission staff's response to a sharply worded Jan. 9 critique by the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency of its initial assessment. The critique prompted the staff to recalculate impacts.
But the staff's underlying conclusion remains unchanged: The $875 million project would exact a terrible toll on the environment within California's fifth-most popular state park - San Onofre State Beach - and is in direct conflict with state and federal environmental laws.
Representatives of Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency, the group that wants to build the toll road, stood by its critique Monday.
"We still believe that there are major errors" in the report, said Jennifer Seaton, a spokeswoman for the Irvine-based agency.
The toll-road builder contends the project would tread lightly on the fragile coastal environment.
Foothill/Eastern is trying to get the green light to complete the last leg of Orange County's 67-mile toll road system. The missing link is a 16-mile section of an inland Orange County toll road, Highway 241, which runs south from Highway 91. The plan was to tie the toll road into Interstate 5 at the San Diego-Orange county line.
Even though it is part of an Orange County road system, the agency is proposing to build the last four miles in North San Diego County. That's because San Clemente occupies the southern tip of Orange County and the agency says any route through the quiet beach town would require bulldozing hundreds of homes.
But going around those homes means going through San Onofre state park, parallel to San Mateo Creek. It is primarily along that stream that the environmental toll would be felt, the report says.
"It is highly likely that the project would result in the complete loss of one of the three remaining limited populations of Pacific pocket mouse and thereby hasten the extinction of the entire species," the report concludes.
It also says the toll road would threaten the survival of endangered arroyo toads and southern steelhead trout, which swim upstream on the San Mateo during years of plentiful winter rain.
But the staff's latest estimate of the toll road's threat includes some sharply reduced numbers.
For instance, construction activity would affect 39 acres of the toad's habitat, not 66 acres as estimated earlier, the report says. And 32 acres of gnatcatcher bird habitat would be affected, not 50.
The revised report also says the road's concrete footprints in San Mateo Creek could alter the downstream flow of the cobbles believed to be the source of the world-class waves at Trestles Beach.
Seaton, of the Foothill/Eastern agency, disagreed. "The 241 will have no impact on the delivery of cobbles to the coast," she said.
Citing an analysis by a transportation consultant hired by an environmental group, the commission asserted that a project alternative - widening Interstate 5 in south Orange County - is feasible despite Foothill/Eastern's claims to the contrary. The transportation agency contends that more than 1,200 homes and businesses would have to be bulldozed. The analysis says only about 5 percent of those properties would have to be condemned.
"What this means is, we don't have to destroy the park," said Dan Silver, executive director for the Endangered Habitats League in Los Angeles.
Seaton said the analysis cannot be trusted.
"The reality is that there is no funding to widen I-5, and it cannot be done without taking out hundreds of homes and businesses," she said.