By Allison Jarrell, Special to the Independent
Laguna Beach residents and community leaders came armed with plenty of questions at this past Wednesday’s hearing over Caltrans’ plans to improve traffic safety and reduce flooding along Laguna Canyon Road.
City leaders and local environmental experts have concerns that the project will have negative impacts on the canyon’s open space and habitat.
Caltrans released its initial environmental assessment of the $39.3 million project earlier this month, which proposes safety improvements along Laguna Canyon Road near the El Toro Road intersection. Funding for the project is coming from the county, state and federal government.
Laguna Canyon Road saw 572 accidents between Forest Avenue and El Toro from June 2007 to January 2015, according to a 2015 report. That includes two pedestrian fatalities in 2010 and 2014, and vehicle collision fatalities in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
Fifty-six percent of those accidents involved rear-end collisions, largely cause by inattentive drivers or drivers stopping suddenly for pedestrians or cars turning into Anneliese’s School.
The project includes extending the second lane northbound from El Toro by 1,200 feet and southbound by 900 feet, which will taper back to one lane. Caltrans says eliminating the bottleneck on either side of the intersection will give drivers more time and room to merge.
The project also includes drainage improvements, such as a concrete check dam within Laguna Canyon Creek, and the addition of eight-foot shoulders and bike lanes from El Toro to SR-73. The county is funding the undergrounding of 19 utility poles north of El Toro. About 13 or 14 poles south of El Toro will be relocated rather than buried.
Caltrans officials estimate that project design will begin later this year, with construction potentially starting in early 2021 and completed by mid 2023.
This week’s hearing drew a large crowd to the Laguna Beach High School library, who provided feedback about the project’s environmental assessment verbally or on comment cards. Caltrans officials said each would receive a response over the next couple months.
Earlier in the week, city officials voiced several concerns about the project. Assistant City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said Caltrans needs to analyze how lengthening the merge lane south of the El Toro intersection will impact access to a parking lot for the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. Dupuis also listed concerns over potential impacts from construction and placing utility poles outside of paved shoulders as well as mitigation to replace the loss of riparian habitat on-site rather than off-site as Caltrans has proposed.
City Manager John Pietig said the city suggested Caltrans hold off on the project until the outcome is known of a November ballot measure over undergrounding utility wiring elsewhere on Laguna Canyon Road, which would require coordination with the city’s master plan.
Pietig also clarified that the county is paying about $30 million for the undergrounding of the 19 poles north of El Toro, and said their obligation to do so goes back 10 years.
Dupuis said the city shares environmental and safety concerns with organizations such as the Laguna Canyon Foundation and the Canyon Alliance of Neighborhoods Defense Organization (CANDO).
In a June 18 Laguna Canyon Foundation newsletter, executive director Hallie Jones echoed the city’s concerns.
“Laguna Canyon Foundation cannot support a proposal that drastically impacts park land, has substantial monetary costs, and increases the danger and difficulty of exiting and entering Willow parking lot, with no clear benefit to traffic or safety,” Jones said.
Penelope Milne, CANDO president, listed many issues at the hearing, including that the last traffic study of the project area was done in 2014. “Traffic to the park has increased about five times since then,” Milne said.
She also mentioned the need for on-site mitigation of riparian habitat loss due to the check dam and concrete channel.
“They’re going to put an articulated concrete block channel where there is now natural earthen channel, destroying about a third of an acre of irreplaceable riparian habitat,” Milne said. “They may say there’s 7,000 acres of habitat and we’re only taking two, but asphalt is everywhere. Pristine coastal canyons? There’s only one of those.”
When asked about the community’s concerns over open space impacts, Chris Flynn, deputy district director of environmental analysis for Caltrans and Orange County, said Caltrans has “studied that extensively to make sure [they’re] considering the biological resources out there.”
Flynn said Caltrans has been working with Orange County Parks over the last year and made some alterations based on their concerns, such as replacing a planned retaining wall with slope grading on the west side of the highway from Willow Creek up toward the toll road.
Comments on the project’s can be submitted via email to [email protected], or sent to Caltrans District 12, Division of Environmental Analysis, 1750 E. 4th St,, Suite 100, Santa Ana, CA 92705 Attn. Edward Dolan. All comments must be received by July 10.
To view the environmental assessment in its entirety, visit www.dot.ca.gov/d12/DEA/133/0P94U, or the Laguna Beach Library.