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Federal Agency Holds Hearing on Controversial Toll Road Project

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration heard ten hours of testimony Monday on plans for a 16-mile toll road through San Onofre State Park. The six-lane highway would connect southern Orange County and northern San Diego County near the coast. The last hearing on the project was criticized for its "circus like" atmosphere. KPCC's Steve Julian asked Orange County Register environmental affairs reporter Pat Brennan about the atmosphere at Monday's hearing.

Pat Brennan: Yesterday's wasn't quite as circusy. It had some of those elements. You know, you had people with banners and signs outside, and, you know, cheering and hollering a little bit inside, but NOAA seemed to have pretty tight control over the proceedings, and they had a security contingent there, and there were also San Diego County sheriff's deputies.

And they had sort of preplanned the whole thing with, you know, putting out their list of the speakers that they'd selected, or actually put in order, from all those who applied to speak. And, so they kept things moving. People had, you know, between three and four minutes, depending on who it was, to speak, and the mics cut out after they stopped.

Julian: I think there were, what, 650 people who signed up, and only a quarter got to the microphone?

Brennan: Yeah, it's looking like maybe about 175 actually got to speak, which was more than they expected. They expected to get through 150 or so.

Julian: Now, remind us, Pat, why the federal agency took this issue up.

Brennan: The toll road agency appealed to the U.S. Commerce Department, and NOAA is a branch of Commerce, after the state coastal commission ruled against the toll road back in February. So, they were able to appeal under the Coastal Zone Management Act, which is federal. And so, and this, but they must make an argument that the toll road is of national importance.

Julian: In what way would it be?

Brennan: Well, they say it's very important for regional traffic patterns and, you know, the movement of goods through the area, so commerce is involved there, interstate commerce, and ports, etcetera.

Julian: I suppose safety and security would be as well for people who, for example, last time there was a major fire in San Diego, couldn't get out on I-5 quickly enough.

Brennan: There were arguments to that effect that were made, yes, by some of the supporters of the toll road, including the Orange County Fire Authority chief, who got up and said it would help safety in times of wildfire and other disasters.

Julian: Those who were against it cite wildlife as one reason.

Brennan: Yeah, the toll road does pass through quite a bit of habitat in, you know, starting in northern San Diego County, and then moving through Orange County, and there is, there are biologists and some of the activists who were saying that a large number of species would be affected, including some threatened and endangered.

The big one is the pacific pocket mouse everyone talks about. That one is almost gone. There are very few populations left, and this road would pass very close to pocket mouse habitat. And there are other species. The California gnatcatcher, a songbird, and Arroyo toad would be another two.

Julian: Surfers also don't want it to go in because of Trestles.

Brennan: The surfers are very worried about Trestles, and the activists have made an argument that all of the sediment moved could in some way, you know, affect that very famous surfing beach. The toll road agency insists that they'll control the sediment, and it won't affect the beach at all.

Julian: The Commerce Secretary has until January to decide this issue. Do we expect anything before then?

Brennan: It could come earlier, I guess. I believe that what their attorneys told me yesterday was that the final date would be December 22nd, but then they could extend it to January 7th if they wish, so it could be possibly before then, but I'd say anytime between the 22nd of December and January 7th.

Julian: Is this the final answer, or is there an appeal process afterward?

Brennan: Well, I don't think there's a further federal appeal process, but they are still gonna have to come back to the Coastal Commission for a separate permit, so it could go on for quite some time, even if their initial decision here is overruled.

Julian: Pat, thanks so much.

Brennan: You're welcome.