Tuesday, September 23, 2008
By Guy McCarthy
DEL MAR - A federal hearing on a controversial proposal to extend a toll road into a state park that provides access to a world-class surf break drew more than 1,000 people to a beachtown fairgrounds auditorium on Monday.
As the first speakers addressed Jane Luxton, general counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the crowd appeared evenly divided.
Supporters of the toll road cited jobs, economic benefits and public safety as reasons to move forward with the project. Opponents warned of irreparable harm to a dwindling natural resource, and countered the private road plans are strictly for profit - not security.
As the day wore on, many supporters of the toll road left - including scores of union workers in orange T-shirts. By late afternoon, opponents of the proposed California 241 extension outnumbered supporters by at least two-to-one.
More than 650 people had requested to speak at the hearing, but NOAA estimated there would be time for less than a fourth of them to have their say. The lions' share of speaking opportunities were given to elected officials and organization representatives.
The first speaker was Tustin Mayor Jerry Amante, pictured here on the right, shortly after his remarks. Amante is also chairman of the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency (TCA) that wants to build the toll road extension.
Amante cited historic population growth in Southern California among the reasons to go forward with the toll road.
"The uncontestable fact is that since the Great Depression, the population of Southern California has consistently increased - through good economic times and bad," Amante said.
"There are 24 million people in Southern California today. The state projects the population will increase another 11.3 million by 2050 . . . We cannot bury our heads in the sand and wish the problem away."
The fifth speaker was Bobby Shriver, a Santa Monica councilman and brother-in-law to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger dropped Shriver and actor-director Clint Eastwood from the state parks commission in March after their vocal opposition to the toll road.
"The people oppose this," Shriver said after he addressed Luxton and the audience. "The people who live around here oppose this. Anyone who says otherwise is making things up."
The California Coastal Commission had voted 8-2 against the toll road extension a month before Schwarzenegger dropped Shriver and Eastwood.
"We opposed the road and won," Shriver said. "That's the irritating thing."
Rules were posted outside the cavernous auditorium where the hearing took place. There was still cheering, hissing and booing at times.
Outside, some attendees spoke with broadcast reporters, including union representative Armando Esparza of the AFL-CIO. Esparza and his followers support the toll road extension.
"This is a unique and special coastal watershed," said Jayme Timberlake, of Solana Beach. "The last in Southern California that has not been impacted."
Disaster preparedness was a recurring theme among several who spoke in support of the toll toad extension. In February, Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather appeared in uniform to recount how vital access roads were during the October 2007 wildfires.
Shriver dismissed claims that the 241 extension was a calculated answer to public safety and national security concerns.
"The fires are a problem, but fire chiefs always want a bigger road," Shriver said. "Osama bin Laden's not going to be landing on the beach, you know what I mean?"
Nothing was decided at Monday's hearing. NOAA officials said they were there strictly to hear testimony. NOAA is a branch of the federal Department of Commerce, which could overturn the state coastal commission's ruling.