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Famed Surf-Break Wipes Out Toll Road
March 2008 | Betty Wheeler with photos by Virginia Lawrence


The Coastal Commission nixed the toll road through San Onofre State Park before a huge crowd at its Feb. 6 hearing at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, citing environmental impacts that can't be mitigated. 

A marathon session of the California Coastal Commission on Feb. 6 before an overflow crowd of more than 2,100 people at the Del Mar Fairgrounds ended in an 8-2 vote at 11:20 pm to reject a federal consistency certification necessary for the construction of a 16-mile toll road in south Orange County and northern San Diego County, running through San Onofre State Beach.

With a strongly-worded staff report calling the toll road project "fundamentally inconsistent with the spirit and letter of numerous resource protection policies of the Coastal Act," the Coastal Commission considered a wide range of issues, including environmentally sensitive habitat for six species (the Pacific pocket mouse, tidewater goby, arroyo toad, coastal California gnatcatcher, least Bell's vireo, and southern California coast steelhead), traffic congestion alleviation, asserted national security needs and emergency evacuation issues, a controversial non-competition agreement that would prohibit CalTrans from "competing" with the toll road, and the impact on sacred sites and traditional cultural uses by Native Americans.

The potential impact on Trestles, a world-class surf break, along with other environmental concerns, was a major factor in the huge public interest in this issue, with strong audience representation from Surfrider Foundation members and supporters, as well as the Sierra Club. The staff report provided a fascinating primer on the environmental factors that cause high quality wave formation at Trestles, and why surfing mitigation is an uncertain science.

Del Mar Deputy Mayor Crystal Crawford urged the Commission to deny the certification, saying that the project would "in no uncertain terms destroy precious and dwindling coastal resources." Drawing on Del Mar's experience with lagoon restoration, she noted, "Our city knows firsthand how it is far easier to prevent environmental damage rather than to mitigate damage once it has occurred."

By 9:00 am, the scheduled starting time for the meeting, the 1500 floor seats and 800 bleacher seats in the Fairground's Wyland Hall were filled, with an overflow crowd spilling into the outside area where environmental organizations collected petition signatures and distributed free t-shirts, and the Foothill Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency (TCA), the agency seeking to build the toll road, distributed a "Green Means Go!" brochure making its case for environmental stewardship in the toll road project.

Although the majority of attendees were clearly toll road opponents, an estimated 400 pro-toll road union members were in attendance, with one set of bleachers filled with Laborer's Local 652 members from Orange County holding "Drive Less, Live More" signs, and another contingent of about 200 from the southwest regional council of the carpenter's union, representing workers from Santa Barbara to San Diego. Before the hearing began, the atmosphere in the room was lively, with pro-toll road chants met with boos from the opponents, and both sides well-armed with colorful signs, both professionally printed and handmade.

The verbal fireworks weren't limited to the audience, however. During the hearing, Commissioner Sara Wan responded to reports accusing the Coastal Commission staff of "junk science" by pointing out statements by TCA's experts that she called "clearly designed to mislead," and termed some TCA expert opinions "false science". Commissioner Steve Blank called the TCA's offer to contribute $100 million to the California Department of Parks and Recreation for uses relating to the San Onofre and Crystal Cove State Beaches "the most embarrassing part of the [toll road] proposal," asking, "Is there a price list for a state park?"

At 11:22 pm, with the 2-8 vote announced, the meeting was adjourned to great cheering from the audience, still substantial despite 14 hours having elapsed since the hearing began. With the federal certification denied, the toll road project appears to be dead, absent a successful court appeal by TCA or an exemption or override of the federal consistency requirement.

Below:  Photos of the existing condition (top) and the proposed toll road (bottom, artist's conception), courtesy of the Coastal Commission.



Coastal Commission Staff Report:  http://documents.coastal.ca.gov/reports/2008/2/W8b-2-2008.pdf

Coastal Commission website: 

Video of Commission hearings: 

San Diego chapter, Surfrider Foundation: 

Foothill-South Information Center: 



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