Battle Over Road in Coastal Park Draws Thousands

Fri February 22, 2008 - West Edition
Gillian Flaccus - ASSOCIATED PRESS



DEL MAR, Calif. (AP) Thousands of boisterous surfers, environmentalists and commuters squared off Feb. 6 as a state panel prepared to vote on a proposed toll road that would cut through a beachfront park that is home to the famed Trestles surf break.

Plans for 16 mi. (25 km) of highway ending near the break at San Onofre State Beach have galvanized foes, who argue the project would wipe out endangered species, ruin the park, disrupt a sacred Indian site and block sediment that creates world-class waves.

Proponents, including commuters, say the $875 million project will end crushing gridlock on Interstate 5 between Orange County and San Diego, which logs more than 125,000 cars a day.

Anticipating huge turnout, the California Coastal Commission moved its meeting to the Del Mar Fairgrounds north of San Diego. More than an hour after the meeting began in an 1,800-seat room, hundreds of people still streamed in.

Some surfers dragged boards along; others held signs reading “Honk for Trestles” and “Highway from Hell.” Supporters, many of them union members, dressed in orange T-shirts and hoisted signs that read “241 Toll Road: Drive Less. Live More.”

Commission Chairman Patrick Kruer said the panel, which received more than 300 requests from those who wanted to speak, would listen until 8:30 p.m. before cutting off public comment.

“This is the most significant project to come before this commission since the San Onofre nuclear power plant in 1974,” said Peter Douglas, the commission’s executive director.

Commissioners were to decide whether the project met legal requirements of the federal Coastal Zone Management Act and California’s Coastal Act. The up-or-down vote is the first of nearly a dozen decisions by state and federal agencies required before construction could begin.

The commission staff recommended that the project be rejected. The toll agency published a rebuttal report and offered $100 million to the state parks system as part of a deal.

“Since the passage of the Coastal Act in 1976, I know of no other coastal development project so demonstrably inconsistent with the law that has come this far in the regulatory review process,” said Douglas. “This toll road project is precisely the kind of project the Coastal Act was intended to prevent.”

The spiraling debate has spawned more than 500 video postings on YouTube, dozens of pro- and anti-toll road Web sites, protests and television ad campaigns.

Studies commissioned by the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which finances and builds Orange County’s toll roads, estimate that by 2025 a 16-mi. drive on Interstate 5 will take an hour if the toll road isn’t built.

Travis Miller said he took an unpaid day off from work to attend the meeting. He said his family goes camping near the beach and was worried about predictions that the toll road would eliminate 161 campsites at the fifth-most popular state park. San Onofre State Beach gets 2.5 million visitors a year.

“We just got my daughter a surfboard for her seventh birthday and we’re supposed to go there this weekend,” Miller said. “There are no positive points that can come out of the toll road. It won’t fix traffic.”

A group of Indians from the Acjachemen Nation sang a song and told the commissioners that the toll road would destroy a sacred site and ancient burial ground called Panhe.

“Panhe is one of the remaining sites where we can gather and participate in our culture and express our spirituality,” said Rebecca Robles, of the United Coalition to Protect Panhe.

“There’s no way that this traditional cultural property can be replaced. I ask you to hold onto the truth, I ask you to protect this sacred site.”

Tom Raftican, however, said the road would give better coastal access to recreational anglers who live inland.

“A big part of what we do is ensuring access to fishing. Many of our members are inland and congestion is a serious impediment to them getting to the beach,” said Raftican, who is with the group United Anglers.

Environmentalists say the toll road would destroy habitat for nearly a half-dozen threatened or endangered species, including the Pacific pocket mouse. They also say it would cut campsites and create a concrete eyesore in the middle of 2,100-acre San Onofre State Beach, which stretches from coastal bluffs to inland canyons.

Surfers worry the road would block runoff from the San Mateo Creek watershed, which they believe creates the wave conditions that earn Trestles its spot on surfing’s World Championship Tour. The waves attracted 400,000 surfers last year and contribute $8 million to $13 million to the local economy, the commission staff said.

Transportation officials countered that the road’s alignment was tweaked to avoid sensitive habitat and that changes in sediment flow will not affect Trestles.

They say the alternative — widening Interstate 5 — would destroy more than 1,200 homes and businesses.