By Terry Rodgers and Mike Lee / UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITERS / 3:59 p.m. September 22, 2008
DEL MAR – Despite repeated warnings to maintain decorum, supporters and opponents of the proposed state Route 241 toll-road extension both cheered and jeered dozens of speakers at a public hearing Monday.
At times, some of those in the crowd of more than 1,000 drowned out the speakers. “Stop the lies,” yelled a woman from the audience.
“We’d like to ask for respect for all of the speakers and keep the hearing going,” said Jane Luxton, who was running the hearing for the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The meeting began at 10:30 a.m. in O’Brien Hall at the Del Mar Fairgrounds and was expected to run until at least 8:30 p.m.
As the afternoon wore on, neither side in the bitter debate gained a clear edge. Environmentalists who spoke repeated warnings about how the tollway would damage San Onofre State Park and a prized surfing spot known as Trestles. Orange County officials and labor representatives said the project would provide jobs and reduce traffic.
Building the 16-mile extension would cost $1.3 billion and take three years.
“It is possible to build necessary infrastructure and protect the environment,” said Lance MacLean, a Mission Viejo councilman and a board member of the Foothill-Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency. That organization is proposing to build the road.
In February, the California Coastal Commission denied permission for the agency to build the extension. The agency appealed to the Commerce Department, which is expected to issue a ruling by Jan. 7. Part of the lengthened toll road would be on federal land, so federal officials can overrule the Coastal Commission.
“The Coastal Commission got it right. Stop the toll road to nowhere,” urged Mark Massara, director of California coastal programs for the Sierra Club.
Milford Wayne Donaldson, the state’s historic preservation officer, said he is preparing to ask the National Park Service to make the Trestles surf break the first surf site in the country to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“I … plea for the generations of families in the future to enjoy the recreation and culture (at Trestles) and for the incredible importance it holds for California’s identity,” he said. “Please don’t build this freeway.”
Moments later, Dave Stefanides, representing the Orange County Association of Realtors, told Luxton that the toll road should be completed so that Interstate 5 or other routes aren’t widened. If that happens, he said, homeowners in south Orange County could lose their homes.
“No one should be able to take away their retirement,” he said.
Officials for the corridor agency said extending the tollway, which eventually could have six lanes, is critical to lessening traffic gridlock along Interstate 5 in southern Orange County.
Before the meeting started, several dozen members of labor unions in Orange County held a demonstration outside the building. They carried signs saying “less traffic, more jobs” and repeatedly chanted “toll road, yes!”
The pro-tollway rally was small compared to a protest held outside by opponents of the toll road, many of whom held signs saying “save our state park.”
The agency’s chosen route for the extension would stretch from Oso Parkway in Rancho Santa Margarita to I-5 at San Onofre. Backers of the project said it is the least environmentally destructive alignment.
Opponents have said no route could be worse. They said much wildlife would be harmed if the toll road passes through the Donna O’Neill Land Conservancy and the part of San Onofre State Beach next to the San Mateo campground.
The tollway would be the first in California to run across a state park.