Federal agency rules against San Onofre toll road – sides with Coastal Commission

by on December 18, 2008 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, Energy, Environment, Organizing, San Diego

Existing freeway through the park.

Major Victory for Environmentalists and Surfers to Save Trestles and Surrounding Park – Opponents Could Go to Court

Mike Lee (Contact) /Union-Tribune / December 18, 2008

— The Department of Commerce on Thursday upheld the California Coastal Commission’s rejection of a proposed 16-mile toll road extension that would cut through San Onofre State Beach, one of the state’s most popular parks.

Federal officials determined that lengthening state Route 241 is not essential to national security and mentioned at least one viable alternative path.

“The attorneys who did the staff work on it felt that the decision is a fairly clear-cut case,” said Anson Franklin, a spokesman for the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C. He said the ruling was the “last stop” for his agency, though proponents of the toll road could press the issue in court.

It was not immediately clear whether they would do so. A spokesman for the agency overseeing the project said its engineers are reviewing the decision and alternatives.

San Mateo campground is saved by the decision.

San Mateo campground is saved by the decision.

The federal denial is a major victory for surfers and environmentalists, who sustained a years-long campaign to defeat the proposed highway from Rancho Santa Margarita – in southern Orange County – to near Camp Pendleton. They said more than 500,000 supporters belong to organizations fighting the project.

Some opponents were giddy when the news broke.

“Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!” said state Treasurer Bill Lockyer when he joined a conference call of the Save San Onofre Coalition.

Conservationists cited concerns about routing the tollway through a nature reserve in Orange County and the San Onofre park, as well as road construction possibly damaging the world-famous Trestles surfing spot.

“The destruction of this park will threaten every state park in California,” said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles. “Once you allow the veil of state park protection to be breached, it becomes impossible to defend other state parks that will be put on the chopping block for some other . . . toll road or power plant or sewage treatment plant.”

Commerce Department officials determined that the proposed project had “foreseeable effects” on recreation, habitat and federally protected species such as steelhead trout and coastal California gnatcatchers.

San Onofre State Beach.

The Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency of Orange County, which runs state Route 241, sees the extension as a way to relieve congestion on Interstate 5. It also pitched the road as a national security upgrade because the project includes improved vehicle access to Camp Pendleton.

The Commerce Department solicited comments from more than a dozen federal agencies, including the Marine Corps, which runs the base. “None . . . raised any national defense or other national security concerns with the possibility that the project might not go forward,” the Thursday ruling said.

Supporters and critics of the project fiercely debated the proposal at two hearings in Del Mar this year, when thousands of people turned out for all-day sessions.

The first meeting was in front of the Coastal Commission, which ruled that the road was inconsistent with the state’s coastal zone management program.

The transportation agency appealed to the Commerce Department, which oversees the federal Coastal Zone Management Act. The department could have overruled the commission, likely spurring litigation from environmentalists.

Since the Coastal Zone Management Act took effect in 1972, the Commerce Department has acted on 43 appeals, upholding 29 objections by state agencies and overriding 14.

Commerce Department officials rejected a handful of technical arguments by the transportation agency, which said the Coastal Commission didn’t have the authority to review the project and based its ruling on insufficient evidence.

The department also suggested the transportation agency pursue another route, such as an 8.7-mile extension from Oso Parkway to Avenida La Pata in San Clemente. Its officials said that alternative would reduce traffic congestion on I-5 by more than 50 percent.

Some environmentalists support expanding the freeway instead of building a new road.

“There is no question that this coalition is completely committed to doing whatever we need to make sure this toll road is not built through San Onofre State Beach,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation.

Mike Lee: (619) 542-4570; mike.lee@uniontrib.com

Go here for more photos of San Onofre State Beach and San Mateo Campground.

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