Environmental arguments opposing a controversial proposed traffic signal at the main gate of North Laguna’s exclusive Emerald Bay community were dismissed last week by a Superior Court, sweeping aside another obstacle for signal supporters.
But opponents aren’t accepting the judicial detour. “There’s a huge number of people within the community who oppose the light,” contends 25-year Emerald Bay resident Randy Hunt. “It’s not over until Laguna Beach pipes in. This is not an Emerald Bay issue. This is a Laguna Beach issue and everybody needs to know that.”
Hunt is a member of Preserve and Protect North Laguna, a group of approximately 25 outspoken Emerald Bay residents who filed the lawsuit against the County of Orange for declaring that the signal did not pose any environmental threats. The group listed construction and traffic noise, air quality and land use as compelling reasons for the court to order an environmental impact report, a costly and lengthy procedure.
Supporters will ask the City Council at next Tuesday’s meeting to waive the requirement of a coastal development permit to expedite the
project. Proponents of the signal argue it’s a safety necessity, said Susan Thomas, past president of the Emerald Bay Community Association Board. The Emerald Bay Service District and the association are willing to pay more than $3 million to install the signal and make other accommodating changes to residential roads and easements.
“As I understand it, this is something that’s commonly done with a safety issue,” said Thomas. “It’s a combination of a lot of speed, not very good sight lines, some hilliness.” She cited an accident involving a 72-year-old Emerald Bay resident eight years ago who hit and killed an oncoming motorcyclist while attempting to turn left out of the main gate onto southbound Coast Highway.
Judge Kim Dunning of the Superior Court of Orange County disagreed with the petitioners, deciding that the signal would pose no environmental threat to North Laguna.
The identity of Preserve and Protect North Laguna members “is unknown to us,” said Thomas, and was not listed in the petition.
Many Emerald Bay residents that oppose the signal prefer anonymity, explained Hunt, due to pressure from the community’s governing board. “I’m already outed,” he said, “so I don’t care. Emerald Bay basically paints a red letter A in front of anybody’s house who objects to what the board of directors wants. A lot of people prefer to maintain a low profile.”
Mark Lewis, a 27-year Laguna Beach resident and public works director for Fountain Valley, is another outspoken opponent of the signal. He was cited in the court decision as a professional on the subject but who didn’t present any compelling facts about environmental impact. “…his comments were couched in terms of the absence of any need for a traffic signal, not an adverse environmental impact of a traffic signal,” the decision says.
However, Lewis, who travels that stretch of Coast Highway regularly, points out that the court decision overlooks the lack of evidence for the project altogether.
“Snapshots and data don’t exactly paint the convincing picture that this is a necessary installation,” he said. “They attempt to continually hang their hat that it’s for safety purposes and yet the accident history and collision rate don’t suggest that there’s any problem anyway.”
Lewis, like other signal opponents, say the real issue is convenience, not safety. “The convenience for a few people to use that signal for the inconvenience of the thousands of motorists a day who drive on PCH is unnecessary. It would be there in perpetuity and stop people unnecessarily. Signals have their own accident-creating aspects to them.”
The proposed partial signal would control left turns in and out of Emerald Bay at Shamrock Road, the community’s main entrance, and Coast Highway. The signal would be similar to the signal at Monarch Bay Plaza on South Coast Highway in Dana Point and would not affect southbound Coast Highway traffic. The state transportation department, Caltrans, is also requiring the installation of flashing warning signs above north- and southbound lanes before the proposed signal and that flashing meters indicating motorists’ speeds are also in place to slow traffic.
There are other exits from Emerald Bay that feed onto Coast Highway.
The signal project also proposes widening Shamrock Road to four lanes to accommodate more cars, moving back the main gate guard house and lengthening the traffic queuing lanes for early-morning work crews that line up along northbound Coast Highway.
Opponents contest that the signal will undercut safety by increasing the possibility of rear-end collisions, particularly because it’s located in a gully. The court concurred with Caltrans that the proposed signal will not cause rear-end collisions.
The city has hired Steve Brown of Fehr and Peers to provide a peer review of the Emerald Bay traffic signal, according to Public Works Director Steve May. A report is expected to be available to the public on Thursday, May 10, and presented at the City Council meeting on May 15.