Coalition rises to protect San Onofre State Beach

Three years ago Deborah Fry was camping with her family at San Onofre State Beach when a representative from the Sierra Club walked onto her campsite and warned her of plans to build a 40-foot-wide toll road through 4 miles of the park.

On Tuesday, she found herself huddled with her daughter and niece on the rain-soaked steps of the Capitol, speaking to a small group of supporters about her favorite camping spot.

“I flew here today from San Bernardino to show that this is not just an Orange County issue,” said Fry.

Fry, a sixth-grade schoolteacher, was joined by an environmental coalition including representatives for California Treasurer Bill Lockyer, the Sierra Club, the California State Parks Foundation, and Surfrider Foundation at a press conference against the proposed construction of a 16-mile toll road extension to State Route 241 that would cut through the state park in Northern San Diego County.

The conference was held in response to an upcoming California Coastal Commission hearing to decide if SR-241 violates the California Environmental Quality Act. Last year, the commission staff released a 236-page report denying the previous environmental report released by the Transportation Corridor Agency, which formed the report in conjunction with six state agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Fish and Game.

Supporters of the extension, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, argue that the reduction in congestion will lead to a reduction in automobile emissions. In a Jan. 15 letter to Patrick Kruer, chairman of the California Coastal Commission, Schwarzenegger emphasized the economic benefits of a privately funded road, stating, “This could not be more important as state leaders struggle with closing a budget deficit while protecting funding for vital services such as education and health care.”

Ted Nguyen, spokesman for the Orange County Transportation Authority, said the OCTA “fully supports” the completion of the SR-241 toll road because of the traffic relief it promotes and for its minimal harm toward the environment.

But critics doubt the Transportation Corridor Agency went to every effort to mitigate the negative environmental impact in drafting SR-241.

Mike Hazzard, chairman of the citizen watershed monitor, said the foothill toll road would destroy “the last clean watershed left between Ventura and the Mexican border.”

“This toll road runs right through a critical area, basically a lifeline through an estuary that threatens 11 endangered species,” he said.

Hazzard and other volunteers are concerned about the effects of pollutants the road would produce on Trestles Beach, a popular surf spot, and the watershed San Mateo Creek.  

“For surfers, the main issue is clean water and maintaining quality surf resources,” said Rick Erkeneff, media coordinator for the Laguna Beach chapter of Surfrider.

Critics charge TCA with failing to adequately explore alternatives. But TCA notes that there were 38 alternatives studied, and they all failed for various reasons — primarily due to their negative effects on both natural habitats and homes and businesses. “The current plan does not infringe on any homes or businesses,” said Jennifer Seaton, TCA spokeswoman, adding, “this is the only proposed option deemed acceptable by the military who own the land leased for the state park.”

Elizabeth Goldstein, president of California State Parks Foundation, opposed the widening of I-5.  “We need Caltrans experts to stand up and find options,” she said.

Seaton said that widening I-5 would condemn 838 homes and more than 300 businesses and would cost $2 billion to the state.

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