"Conceptual Plan" for Foothill-South (241) Toll Road Extension Draws Scorn and Confusion

Environmental activists opposed to the extension of the 241 toll road into South County are crying foul over the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies' (TCA) recently approving a conceptual plan for construction of the first leg of the project, alleging there was little public notice as previously promised.

But the TCA counters that proper advance notice was given, but the opposition groups misunderstood what exactly was being voted on.

The two sides have been waging public-relations wars against each other that seemed to crescendo with a federal agency's rejection in December 2008 of a proposed, 20-mile extension of the Foothill-South toll road, which would include paving over parts of San Onofre State Beach and ultimately connecting with the 5 freeway near Trestles beach, which is considered sacred to surfers.

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The TCA has developed a new strategy of building the extension in roughly 5-mile increments, with the first phase not yet reaching into the lands most considered environmentally sensitive. But owing to the mistrust on both sides of the issue, groups such as the Surfrider Foundation and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are leery of--and closely monitoring--all phases of the project.

These advocates have also gotten to know the opposition during the long development process, and they say they have been repeatedly reassured by TCA representatives that even with the least-controversial first leg, known as the "Tesoro Extension," there would be plenty of time given for public comment.

But on April 18, "at the end of a hastily arranged 'special meeting' that afforded virtually no prior notice or opportunity for the public to comment, the TCA board approved its plans to build the initial five miles of the 241 extension," reports the NRDC's Damon Nagami on his blog.

"By noticing and holding this critical meeting within the space of just a couple of days," Nagami notes, "TCA went back on numerous promises it made to our coalition and to the public that it would give prior notice and opportunities to comment on this project."

Nagami goes on to cite examples of these assurances in an argument that mirrors the one made the day after the meeting by Surfrider's Mark Rauscher on the "Save Trestles" blog.

"Previously, we were assured multiple times the TCA would hold public workshops and have an open comment period to take input on this project before approving. Instead, they put an agenda on the website with less than 48 hours notice, notified nobody, and then held a vote," writes Rauscher, who included past video of TCA Environmental Director Valarie McFall "explaining to community members last summer how there would be a lengthy process allowing the public to weigh in."

But Lori Olin, a TCA spokeswoman, says the activists have it all wrong this time.
"They're making it sound like a final decision of some sort," Olin complained. "It isn't."

What happened, she says, was the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state agency in charge of inland water quality in South County and San Diego County, requested a conceptual plan from the TCA to fulfill future wastewater requirements tied to California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) compliance.

That set up the April 18 meeting in Costa Mesa, for which the TCA did give 48 hours of advance notice, counters Olin, who notes only 24 hours notice is required by law.

Asked if there will be other meetings at which opposition to the Tesoro Extension can be voiced, Olin answered, "Absolutely. They could have at that meeting. There was another public meeting [regarding the budget] the next day. In no way was this a final decision."

It does not sound from the NRDC/Surfrider posts that they are in any mood to hear more promises, but Olin nonetheless vowed there will be plenty more opportunities down the, um, road to speak out in favor of or in opposition to the project.

The spokeswoman also conceded the TCA received many emails from people who were obviously riled up by the environmental groups. Many claimed the agency acted in secret, with some under the false impression the Tesoro Extension winds all the way to Trestles.

"This was not final," Olin reiterated. "This was not a super-secret meeting. . . . [Critics] are confused."

Email: mcoker@ocweekly.com. Twitter: @MatthewTCoker. Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!

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