After more than six grueling hours of presentations and testimony Wednesday, the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board denied a permit to extend the 241 toll road 5.5 miles farther south in Orange County.
The board voted 3-2 against the project, with board members Eric Anderson and Gary Strawn dissenting.
Knowing the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies ultimately plan to extend the toll road by another 11 miles, the board majority said it didn’t want to approve the project piecemeal.
Board member Sharon Kalemkiarian said she agreed with the staff’s recommendation to approve the permit, but said the TCA was being disingenuous by calling the 241 Extension “the project.”
“I think that this is not the project,” she said. “I think the staff evaluated what it was presented with, and they did a great job, but we have a different function. The environmental impacts for the entire project have not been evaluated.”
However, that same rationale led board member Strawn to vote in favor of the extension.
“Yes, it’s blinders on, but looking at the project we were presented, likewise, I don’t think we can expand it out to a larger project, even though we all might think it is – looking at the evidence in front of us, I reluctantly think I need to vote in favor,” he said.
More than 300 people packed the water board chambers for the 1 p.m. meeting. By 7 p.m., when the public comments were finally closed and the board rendered its decision, about 50 people remained.
Opponents of the project, who had been vocal during much of the proceedings, erupted when the vote was announced, feeling they had won a hard-fought victory to help protect San Onofre State Beach from being damaged by the eventual extension of the toll road into San Diego County.
officials claim the 5.5-mile Tesoro Extension should have been
considered on its own merit and that eventual plans to extend the toll
road 11 additional miles from Camp Cow Road to Interstate 5, should not
be a factor.
“The project did have independent utility. The fact is, we wouldn’t have moved forward in this process if we weren’t confident we could get a permit,” said Lisa Telles, TCA spokeswoman.
She said she didn’t know what the agency’s next steps might be.
“I can’t comment on what we’re going to do next,” she said. “Certainly we’ll go back to the office and look at the situation and determine what we are now dealing with. But the problem has not gone away. We still have a critical issue in South Orange County.”
Backers of the extension, including a number of elected officials and chamber of commerce members from various Orange County cities, cited the need to reduce congestion on local roads, especially in areas that lack alternatives to Interstate 5.
Some pointed out that drivers were stuck on the 5 Freeway up to four hours without access to alternate routes after a propane tanker overturned in San Clemente last week.
However, the project’s opponents, who included representatives and volunteers from environmental groups such as Save San Onofre and the Surfrider Foundation, argued that the ultimate goal of extending Interstate 5 to San Diego County “threatened one of the last natural watershed areas in the region.”
Additionally, they argued the extension was simply an attempt by TCA to get approval for “one piece of the larger project,” a project that was rejected in 2008 by both the water board and the California Coastal Commission.
“This is simply a regurgitation of the same project, but in an unlawful piecemeal manner,” said Esther Sanchez, an Oceanside city councilwoman. “The developer admits that this is just one part of the original project, and that it is the original project that they are pursuing.”
At stake is the impact the full project would have on Trestles, the world-renowned surfing spot near San Onofre State Beach.
“Why are we talking about putting a fee-based road through a state park?" Surfrider CEO Jim Moriarty asked the board. "Would we allow the same thing in Yosemite? Would we put a toll bridge from one rim to the other in the Grand Canyon? Of course not."
He added: “The road is a horrible idea. It’s insulting to the very idea of democracy. National parks and state parks are one of America’s greatest ideas, and we are sitting here and are about to throw that out. We are talking about our collective legacy. Let’s leave what is special about California special. Don’t pave it. It’s already a gem. We already have paradise. Why change that?”
Tesoro Extension supporters also had strong opinions.
Sam Allevato, mayor pro tem of San Juan Capistrano and a director on the Foothills-Eastern TCA board, took offense at continued reference to the tollway as “a road to nowhere,” a description coined by the California attorney general.
“My city has been disparaged as ‘nowhere’ by the California attorney general,” Allevato said. “We have attractions from a premier equestrian center to the famous Mission of San Juan Capistrano. It’s the birthplace of Orange County. So we’re pretty far from nowhere.”
In total, the board heard more than 100 opponents and proponents of the project. After each speaker was done, members of the crowd clapped and cheered.
As testimony continued, some cast the issue as a case of Orange County capitalism vs. San Diego County environmentalism.
“We in Oceanside are always thankful for Camp Pendleton, which serves as a buffer and definite change from the horrible urban sprawl and bad planning of Orange County,” said Sanchez.