Every candidate in the last San Diego city election agreed on at least one thing: We have to do something about traffic congestion , especially the completion of Route 56, which will divert some of the north and south pressure on Interstates 5 and 15.
It should be a no-brainer. After many years of wishing and hoping, the road is almost finished. The money is there. And the route was chosen to fit the most stringent , and expensive , environmental requirements.
There was even a ceremony celebrating its planned completion. But re-cork the champagne, because Route 56 may never be completed. And neither may other critical, congestion relieving roads in our area. Gov. Gray Davis can announce all the politically popular transportation projects he wants. It ain’t gonna happen!
And all because of a grove of dying trees in the Orange County community of Bolsa Chica.
Last summer, a state appeals court ruled that, despite 25 years of precedent, local officials in Orange County were wrong when they said a property owner could remove a diseased grove of eucalyptus trees, as long as he replaced this habitat in greater amounts somewhere else nearby.
This trade-off practice is called mitigation and is the essence of almost every major land use decision in California over the last two decades. Especially San Diego, as anyone who drives up Interstate 5 can see with all of the new and improved wetlands on either side of the freeway.
These new wetlands are there because other property owners had to improve them as a condition to complete their projects.
Luckily, these improvements are already done. Because the state court has said that the same kind of mitigation that once restored these wetlands is now illegal. And that is why the completion of Route 56 , and lots of other infrastructure projects throughout California , is in such trouble.
Route 56 goes through a small area some biologist deemed an environmentally sensitive habitat. It’s almost impossible for a road not to do this. So the city of San Diego and Caltrans had agreed to a host of measures to mitigate the less than one acre of habitat that would be displaced by this new road.
But that’s not legal anymore. And some folks (the Sierra Club among them) would rather see State Route 56 remain undone, and kill any hope for improving traffic congestion, rather than tamper with one inch of this land. Bowing to this pressure, the California Coastal Commission is ready to kill state Route 56.
And now we read in the papers that others are suing the city over the reopening of Sorrento Valley Road for much the same reason.
It’s a crazy interpretation of a law that, as an environmental attorney, I helped write almost 25 years ago. Back then, we were actually trying to protect the coast, not stop the construction of every new road along the coast. I fought for a law that would balance new development with an enhanced environment, for the long-term protection of the California coast.
But the intent of this law has been horribly twisted. In Route 56, an environmentally sensitive route has been selected and is under construction. Now in one small part of it on the west side, new environmental challenges under the Bolsa Chica ruling threaten to make Route 56 so expensive it will never be completed.
And it’s happening all over the state. In Goleta, the Bolsa Chica decision forced the cancellation of a new school. In Santa Barbara, University of California officials cannot expand their campus. In San Mateo County, it’s killing conservation easements and the repair of one of the most dangerous roads in the state: Devil’s Slide.
In San Diego, we have more than just Route 56, there’s the double-tracking of Amtrak, the improvement and expansion of Interstate 5, and many other projects , including the governor’s , that are non-starters.
It doesn’t make sense. And it brings the Coastal Commission into disrepute. It’s a situation crying for relief from the people in Sacramento who are supposed to be overseeing the Coastal Commission , the governor and the state Legislature.
Hedgecock is a former mayor of San Diego and a radio talk show host on KOGO-AM.