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High Political Drama in O.C.

The white-hot debate over whether to expand the 241 toll road has pitted suits against surfers, north county against south.

By Steve ChurmPublished: July 03, 2008

If you like over-the-top political drama with all the color and theatrical displays of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” mark your calendars. On July 24 or 25, the region’s most contentious and watched environmental showdown rolls into Orange County for what promises to be a reporter’s dream. It has more angles than a crystal prism and more prime-time players than “Ocean’s Thirteen.”

The diverse factions in this fight are girding for what may be the last stand for those who want to build the 16-mile Foothill South toll road. The plan to extend the 241 toll road south to the Interstate 5 at San Mateo Creek near legendary surf spot Trestles has been a lightning rod for environmentalists, surfers and many San Clemente residents. Thousands turned out in February when the California Coastal Commission struck down the proposed toll way at a marathon meeting in Del Mar.

The Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency appealed to the Commerce Department. Now, the hearing on that appeal has been set, and this time, the environmental battle royale comes to the Bren Events Center at UC Irvine. The Bren has 5,000 seats, but that may not be enough space for all the competing interests in this civic tug-of-war. It pits business vs. environmentalists; North County vs. South County; coastal vs. inland; academics vs. pragmatists; surfers vs. suits; and elected officials vs. elected officials. The Commerce Department has received more than 30,000 comments on the proposal since the commission’s ruling. Three state senators and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi have urged the commerce secretary not to overturn the commission’s rejection. But eight California congressmen have weighed in supporting the plan.

The late July appeals hearing (the exact time and date had not been set at press time) is do or die for proponents. If the commerce secretary does not overrule the commission, no more appeals are available, and many believe the Foothill South toll road is dead. But if the decision is overturned, the proposal will live on, though the agency must return to the Costal Commission for a separate approval.

The Trestles and San Onofre coastline are hallowed sand for the world’s surfing community – I know because I cut my teeth in the sport at Uppers, not far from where the toll road extension would connect with Interstate 5. But I’m also a businessman, who cares and depends on the future growth and vibrancy of this marketplace. The Interstate 5 in South County is a bottleneck to economic expansion. The Foothill South is a tantalizing option to improve the flow of goods and services, as well as workers, between Orange and San Diego counties. That’s what makes this July hearing a must-see event. OCMB