For the last two years, I had the honor to serve as facilitator for meetings toward settlement of the south Orange County toll road issues among members of the Transportation Corridor Agencies and executive leadership of the Save San Onofre Coalition. SSOC is comprised of 12 of the nation’s leading environmental advocates, including Surfrider Foundation, California State Parks Foundation, Audubon, Natural Resources Defense Council and Endangered Habitats League. Native American Heritage Commission, as well as the office of the California Attorney General, representing several state agencies, were also engaged.
The battle was at least 15 years old, even older perhaps, dating back to the besieged 1996 completion of SR-73 toll road in the San Joaquin Hills. The subsequent construction of its sisters, SR-241 and 261, to the east, are part of a long-planned 67-mile network, making Orange County the toll road capital of California. They are also one of this state’s few successful “public-private partnerships” — where private investors fund construction through the sale of bonds instead of taxes — while a public agency comprised of locally elected officials manages the system in alignment with Caltrans.
Efforts to connect the last 16 miles of SR-241 to I-5 in San Clemente were contentious, to say the least. A so-called “green alignment” through the Donna O’Neill Conservancy, a state park, sensitive habitat and cultural areas infuriated advocates and was soundly rejected by the California Coastal Commission in 2008 due to the effective advocacy of SSOC. “Save Trestles” — a renowned surfing site — was the battle cry.
Yet eight years later, mobility in south Orange County, and particularly on I-5, remains a mess. And, to the credit of SSOC members, they agreed a solution was needed.
In this spirit, our meetings commenced. We began with the end in mind — what would success look like to each side? It was hard work but the result saved more than Trestles. Five lawsuits were settled, saving everyone’s time and treasure. San Onofre State Beach, the O’Neill Conservancy, San Mateo Creek and adjacent watersheds, with a $28 million conservation fund for that watershed’s protection and restoration, were also saved. A cooperative framework was established to move forward with a new look at SR-241 but in alignment with Coastal Commission and other agency recommendations. SSOC will remain in the process, saved by them, to advance the common settlement goals.
And, on a personal note, it was remarkable to behold the good faith efforts of those around the table to this innovative settlement — “saving” the fine art of listening, of learning from each side, of balance and compromise, of discernment, staying focused and creative even in disagreement, staying true to core values while finding solutions that benefited both sides.
In a day and age where all too often we see communication as “demands to be heard” and success as “who can shout loudest over the other,” the process and hard work done by the parties to this deal is a model worth saving for generations.