Photo: Ellis
Photo: Ellis

Another Twist in Trestles Toll Road Saga

San Clemente sues TCA to overturn 2016 settlement protecting Trestles-adjacent land

Last November's historic settlement between the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) and the Save San Onofre Coalition (SSOC) seemed like it ended 15 years of strife and a handful of lawsuits tied to the "Green Alignment," the TCA's 2006 and 2013 approvals of its Foothill-South and Tesoro Extension projects—plans that called to connect the SR-241 toll road to Interstate 5 at the south end of San Clemente near Basilone Road.

What began as a private highway project to ease traffic congestion in south Orange County soon turned into a years-long saga, setting environmental advocates against proponents of highway development. The seemingly endless battle has raged on, mostly to ensure a toll road would never encroach the San Mateo Creek watershed's natural habitat, which includes San Onofre State Beach and its native history.

The latest blow in the lengthy feud landed on July 28th, 2017, when the City of San Clemente sued to overturn the 2016 agreement that forces the TCA back to the drawing board for its toll road extension.

And it's a knockout, since the lawsuit could untie the key objectives that were part of the settlement agreement, including:

• Permanent protection of San Onofre State Beach, the Richard and Donna O'Neill Conservancy, and other critical open space, wildlife habitat and cultural resources in the San Mateo Creek and adjacent watersheds from TCA-sponsored road projects.

• Green-lighting the TCA to advance its formal CEQA/NEPA process to review alternative routes for connecting the SR-241 to the Interstate 5 freeway and develop a toll road extension project that avoids San Onofre State Beach and other environmentally and culturally sensitive lands designated in the agreement, without opposition from environmental organizations comprising the Save San Onofre Coalition, which includes the Surfrider Foundation.

• Cooperative support where an alignment for the SR-241 and other I-5 traffic congestion solutions could be identified, evaluated and possibly advanced in a manner that follows applicable laws, is consistent with recommendations issued by regulatory agencies in 2008, and meets south Orange County's transportation needs.

• The robust $28 million TCA conservation fund that further preserves and restores San Mateo Creek and its watershed—with an independent oversight committee comprised of Save San Onofre Coalition members, the TCA and resource agencies protecting the fund, all working collaboratively to identify nearby land acquisitions and provide support via critical habitat restoration projects.

Based on follow-up agreements from the November 2016 settlement, there are 18 different proposed alignments favored for development to connect the toll road to the highway. Two of the most feasible routes proposed by the TCA are what provoked San Clemente to sue, as the routes would run through protected open space and connect to I-5 in town near Shorecliffs Golf Course or Avenida Pico, essentially splitting the city in two.

The Reserve Maintenance Corp., a San Clemente HOA that staunchly upholds development principles dating back to the city's 1928 Master Plan, also filed a lawsuit to overturn the agreement the same day as the city. "It's a piecemeal strategy we don't support at all," said San Clemente City Attorney, Scott Smith. "Us having to sign on with a partner who only blows freeways through open space and within town isn't the answer, and we want to see a full reset—a clean slate that doesn't bind us to this result."

Throughout the lengthy battle, the Surfrider Foundation was instrumental in spearheading coalition efforts to nix toll road encroachment on Trestles and its surrounding habitats—going so far as to execute its own settlement plan with the TCA.

In addition to getting the TCA to agree on a "no-build zone" at Trestles, Surfrider negotiated an $800,000 restitution payment from the TCA for legal bills related to settlement work racked up over 15 years—claiming all monies reimbursed are earmarked specifically for more California conservation efforts.

The catch, however, was that Surfrider cannot oppose toll road plans that happen outside of the "no-build zone," which would involve those 18 alignments—ones that that would even run through the nearby cities of San Juan Capistrano and Mission Viejo.

Dr. Chad Nelsen, CEO of Surfrider Foundation, believes the organization did right by the people of San Clemente and the millions each year who visit San Onofre State Park by agreeing to overall terms with the TCA.

"There's an idea that this was all some secret agreement—that Surfrider took the money and ran—and that's simply not the case," said Dr. Nelsen in a phone interview. "After 15 years of fighting and winning, we were looking for an end game. [San Clemente] didn't want the original agreement to happen, and are pitting people in the city against people who want to protect the park, which doesn't make sense, because the park is a community asset for the city."

Big wave dignitary and San Clemente native, Greg Long, can't make heads or tails of the city's shift in thinking. He sees the lawsuit to undo the agreement as a tremendous step backward in protecting the beauty and natural spaces within town.

"In many ways, I view the Trestles region as my backyard," Long said via email. "To see a toll road built through it would have been devastating. The outrage I felt years ago when I learned of the TCA's plans—I'm certain—is how many other San Clemente residents now feel upon seeing the proposed 241 routes through the heart of our town. Just like the original plan, each would be intrusive and devastating to our remaining natural spaces and incomprehensibly destructive to our neighborhoods and sense of community. I think that it is fair to say, there is not a single San Clemente resident who wants this big road being built through their homes, schools or businesses. And there is absolutely no reasonable or respectable place where a toll road could be built within our city."

Long went on to say that he questions the legitimacy of the very idea that a toll road is even needed at this point, since the current I-5 widening project is nearing its completion—a project that was designed to alleviate traffic on city roads.

"I think it would be foolish to undo the current agreement between Surfrider, SSOC and the TCA before we actually see how effective the widened freeway is," Long said.

And so, the saga to save Trestles continues, with a new twist. What remains is a fight that likely won’t end until, according to Nelsen, the TCA builds a road or doesn't.