Attorney General Bill Lockyer and environmental groups filed a series of lawsuits Thursday (March 23), opening what they said will be a landmark legal fight against plans to build a six-lane toll road through one of California’s most popular parks, San Onofre State Beach.
The Daily Breeze, Torrance, reported that leading environmentalists warned that the outcome could determine whether unrelenting development pressures will be allowed to start nibbling away at the 1.5 million acres the state has preserved and set aside as public parkland.
“This is a project we intend to stop,” said Joel Reynolds, a veteran litigator with the Natural Resources Defense Council, “because if we can’t save this … coastal gem, then it’s only a matter of time before a project just like it comes to a state park near you.”
An Orange County entity, the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency, voted overwhelmingly last month to push ahead with plans to build a 16.9-mile toll road between state Route 241 in Rancho Santa Margarita and Interstate 5 in San Clemente.
The $875 million project would relieve chronic congestion on I-5. But the chosen route includes a four-mile stretch that would consume 320 acres of the 2,100-acre San Onofre State Beach. The park, the fifth most popular in the state system, draws 2.5 million visitors a year with campground reservations booked months in advance.
Lockyer, the environmental groups and the state’s Native American Heritage Commission filed separate lawsuits in San Diego Superior Court. The suits challenge the project’s compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, better known as CEQA.
Lockyer and Reynolds said the toll-road agency did not adequately consider viable alternatives, particularly a widening of I-5.
The agency’s environmental-impact report found that adding lanes to the existing freeway would force the removal of too many existing homes and businesses. But Lockyer and Reynolds said those numbers were greatly overblown.
“That’s one example of the way in which this EIR process was manipulated to get to the result they preferred,” said Lockyer, a Democrat.