By John Earl and Lisa Wells
“The last thing George said to me, ‘Rock,’ he said, ‘Sometime when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper.’” Ronald Reagan speaking in the 1940 movie “Knute Rockne, All American.”
In 1971, California Gov. Ronald Reagan dedicated 3,000-acres of land belonging to the U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton as a nature preserve known now as San Onofre State Park. Speaking like a Native American, Reagan referred to the intrinsic value of the land. “One of the greatest legacies we can leave to future generations is the heritage of our land,” he said, “But unless we can preserve and protect the unspoiled areas which God has given us, we will have nothing to leave them.”
What Reagan left us is now the 5th most visited park within the the state’s 278-park system. Besides boasting the cleanest watershed in the region, it also houses endangered species like the Pacific pocket mouse, the arroyo toad, the southern steelhead trout, the California gnatcatcher, the tidewater goby and the least Bell’s vireo as well as the archaeological site, Panhe, a 4,000-year-old Juaneño Indian village. Popular campgrounds and world-renowned surfing spots such as Trestles are also part of San Onofre’s appeal.
But like the “Crying Indian” in the 1971 television commercial asking the public to stop pollution, Reagan might also shed a tear if he knew what was happening at his cherished park.
That’s because the park is now threatened by developers, backed by organized labor and most Orange County politicians, who say that unless the 241 Toll Road (currently extending 12-miles from Yorba Linda to Rancho Santa Margarita) is extended through 16-miles of the northern end of the park to connect to the I-5 freeway, south Orange County will suffer huge increases in traffic congestion that will have a “devastating impact” on the local economy and in turn adversely affect the economy of the entire nation and that there are no viable alternative routes.
Those are the claims of the state’s Transportation Corridor Agencies, a joint powers agency founded in 1986 to fill a lull in state funding for highway construction through privatization. The TCA runs Orange County’s three existing toll roads, Highways 241, 261 and 133.
But the CCC quashed that plan in an 8-2 vote Feb. 6 after it’s longest and best attended public hearing ever-14 hours and 3,500 people, most of them opponents who formed one of the broadest political coalitions in Orange County history that included surfers, environmentalists, politicians, scientists, movie stars, Native Americans, surf industry CEOs and even civil rights activists.
Specifically, the CCC ruled that the proposed project did not conform to the California Coastal Management Program (CCMP) “in areas of environmentally sensitive habitat, wetlands, public access and recreation, surfing, archaeological resources, and energy consumption and vehicle miles traveled.” The Commission also determined that alternative measures existed that would be consistent with CCMP.
In March, the TCA appealed the CCC decision to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce (SOC), who can grant an override if he finds that the toll road extension is consistent with the intent of the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, in the national interest or in the interest of national security.
To the strong objection of the TCA, whose boards feared another strong public outcry against the toll road, he SOC scheduled a public hearing for July at the University of California, Irvine’s Bren Center. But UCI backed out after research showed that up to 10,000 people could show up at the 5,000 person capacity venue. At press time (July 29) the TCA has asked that the hearing be held at the Anaheim Convention Center while the Save San Onofre environmental coalition requested that the event be held at the Del Mar fair grounds where the Feb. 5 public hearing occurred.
Misleading the Public
One of the TCA’s major points before the CCC and in its appeal to the SOC is that a “collaborative” of public agencies, including the TCA and Army Corps of Engineers, reached a consensus that the TCA’s proposed toll road plan was the Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative (LEDPA) and that none of the eight other alternatives proposed by opponents of the 241 extension, including widening the I-5, were “practicable” under California environmental law.
But a letter to the SOC from Col. Thomas H. Magnes, district commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, says that the TCA misrepresented the facts. The letter explains that the Corps acts independently under the law and is solely responsible for determining the LEDPA and is the final agency that will decide if the project is in the national interest or not. “The Corps made no assertion…that other toll road alternatives considered in the draft EIS/SEIR were not practicable,” Magnes wrote.
The Corps did issue a “preliminary,” but not final, determination of LEDPA for the proposed TCA 241 extension-an important distinction since the Corps still has to consider a reevaluation of the environmental impact report and confer with the Federal Highway Administration and others to determine the TCA’s compliance with the National Environment Policy Act and to make a final determination on the LEPDA. In its report to the CCC, the TCA left out the word “preliminary,” which Magnes called “not only misleading, but [it] creates potential misconceptions about the Corps’ ability and willingness to render impartial decisions that are neither arbitrary nor capricious.”
Nor was the Corps a party to a consensus of the collaborative in favor of TCA’s Final Environment Impact Report, as the TCA claims in its appeal to the SOC. “It is imperative the record reflect that the Corps was not party to unanimous recommendations that led to the TCA Board of Supervisors certifying their Final SEIR, either in the manner of time frame they did,” Magnes’ letter said.
Magnes sums up that not only did the Corps not concur with the TCA as claimed in the appeal, but it “holds the opinion there are practicable alternatives to TCA that would achieve the overall project purpose.”
But Magnes’ highly critical April 7 letter didn’t stop nine Republican members of Congress, including Dana Rohrabacher of the 46th Congressional District (Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley and Seal Beach), from repeating almost exactly the TCA’s misleading claims in their own letter urging the SOC to override the CCC. “The selected project alternative reflects the consensus reached by the federal transportation and environmental agencies after a six year, $20 million federal environmental analysis,” the letter falsely states.
Besides its appeal, the TCA is fighting the tide of public opinion with mailers that smear environmentalists and surfers who oppose the toll road. A TCA mailer sent to O.C. homes in July includes a photo depicting freeway gridlock. The caption reads, “Driving home just got harder,” and in bolder red text, “They don’t want you at ‘their beach’ even if it means double the time you spend driving home.”
Like other TCA opponents, Sierra Club attorney Mark Massara is outraged by the tactic. “The saddest part of their entire multi-million dollar ‘blame it on the surfers and environmentalists’ PR campaign is that it is entirely financed by public taxpayers’ dollars in the form of federal loans and gifts to TCA. What a sick scam: the public is financing a project the public is dead set against,” he complains.
To Massara, the 241 toll road is a “Ponzi scheme designed to facilitate construction of over 10,000 new homes in inland Orange County to finance the most environmentally destructive roadway in California history.”
But building homes and having “nice places for people to live” is a good idea, says Rohrabacher. “People being able to have a decent living is more important than maintaining the habitat of lizards,” he told the Voice. “I find all the environmental arguments bogus.”
Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook, who is Rohrabacher’s election opponent for the 46th Congressional District, opposes the toll road and hopes hopes the new hearing date is announced soon. “The public has a right to weigh in on this,” she said in a phone interview. “The TCA is struggling trying to build roads supplying twentieth century thinking for their transportation future,” she said, adding, “There’s no reason for the TCA to exist.”
Bury the TCA
Massara is waiting impatiently for the TCA ‘s demise. “[It] is so crucially important for the public-anyone who cares about the future of our state transportation system, our State Parks, the environment, open space, endangered species or the coast-to attend this last major hearing, whenever or wherever it may be, to insure that TCA is buried once and for all.”
Or as Ronald Reagan concluded when he dedicated the opening of San Onofre State park in 1971, “This expanse of acreage, San Onofre Bluffs State Beach, now has its future guaranteed as an official state park. However, its preservation still remains with those who use the park. As stewards of this land, we must use it judiciously and with a great sense of responsibility.”
Reagan’s words could save Trestles. After all, who wouldn’t want to win one for the Gipper?