Orange County Supervisor Tom Wilson was talking himself green again last Thursday. There, in Santa Ana's Orange County Pavilion Theater, wearing a televangelist's headset, Wilson participated in a panel discussion of Orange County's environmental challenges, wistfully titled "The Greening of Orange County."
Despite ocean water so polluted it sickens, despite plans for a toll road to cut through a beloved state park/surf mecca and despite the near-unfettered and uninterruped building, building, BUILDING, on virtually every piece of ground that can sustain a mortgage, Wilson began his talk by lauding the "giant strides" the county has made in preserving open space. He offered no particulars. He talked, as he often does, about his role in creating the Orange County Coastal Coalition. The group ostensibly protects the environment but is in fact stacked with developers and has lobbied state legislators to weaken environmental laws (see "We Missed on This One," April 5, 2001).
Satisfied, the supe sat back.
For years, Wilson—he of the amazing silver pompadour and dentifrice that gleams like Paul Wall's grill—has told anyone who'll listen that he's a tree-hugging pragmatist, a friend of the environment dedicated to mediating the conflict between necessary growth and the county's dwindling open space. He'll cite his opposition to the El Toro airport, his role in starting the Orange County Coastal Coalition, his love of his Fifth District's many regional, state and national parks.
In fact, Wilson is so loathed by local environmentalists that a few years ago some of them christened a fetid Aliso Viejo pond "Lake Wilson." And with good reason: in his decade-long tenure representing South County, Wilson has greenlighted developers who slashed and burned the region's pastoral landscape. New housing developments in San Clemente, Dana Point, Coto de Caza, Las Flores and Newport Coast encroached on forests, coastline and creeks; toll roads tore through the Portola and San Joaquin hills.
In Wilson's back yard, two projects represent the end of the Orange County frontier: the Rancho Mission Viejo project, which will put 14,000 homes on historic grazing land, and the 241 Foothill South Toll Road, which will cut through San Onofre State Beach.
After Wilson's reassuring words, it was Dan Silver's turn to speak. Silver is executive director of the Endangered Habitat League, a Los Angeles organization that helped transform the Foothill-South toll road into a statewide issue. To rapturous audience applause, Silver asked Wilson why he favored the toll road instead of studying alternatives, like widening the 5 freeway.
Wilson insisted that the county had considered other options. After the San Joaquin toll road debacle, Wilson said, the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA)—the government body in charge of Orange County's toll roads—decided to adopt a "new sensitivity in the 21st century." The Foothill South, he promised, would take an "integrative approach" to one of the state's last watersheds.
"Just as the roads go through Yosemite," Wilson proclaimed, the Foothill South would go through "wonderful country," though he failed to mention that access to those Yosemite roads has been denied to the public because of all the damage the crush of cars and car emissions has done. Undeterred by facts, Wilson continued.
"If we don't do that road," Wilson concluded, "we won't have other alternatives."
You'd have to be nuts—or a Fox News pundit, or Tom Wilson—to argue that a road through a state park represents anything like "a new sensitivity."
Another panelist, Huntington Beach Council Member Debbie Cook, seemed to get that.
"I don't think we need more roads," she shot back. "We need more mass transit."
Arnold Schwarzenegger spokesperson Terry Tamminen chimed in by saying the governor is "very disappointed with the TCA" and would prefer the county study plans that would preserve San Onofre State Park.
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The audience applauded again.
Wilson concluded the evening by noting that he's termed out, and, while he'll miss standing up for the environment, he won't miss the fund-raising. "Fund-raising is the worst thing you can get into as a public official," he said, his words freighted with earnestness. "I hate fund-raising."
Wilson hates fund-raising so much that he raised an astonishing $100,495 for his successful 2002 re-election bid. His most generous contributors included a Hall of Fame of South County development: the Building Industry Association of Southern California (the collective lobbying group for Southland developers), the Irvine Co., Talega Associates, Charles Abbott Associates, the Kralow Co. and John Laing Homes. It's their world. Thanks to Tom Wilson, we just live in it.