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Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008 | Tow-headed children clad in sloganed t-shirts — Arnold Don’t Surf — sprinted in circles. Protestors in Ronald Reagan masks carried graffiti-covered surfboards. The line for corn dogs and gyros stretched 20 deep.

Serge Dedina, executive director of Wildcoast, the Imperial Beach-based environmental group, surveyed the hundreds milling around the California Coastal Commission’s hearing on the San Onofre State Beach toll road and proclaimed, “It’s the Woodstock of the surf movement.”

On a day when the commission voted 8-2 to reject a plan to build a 16-mile toll road through San Onofre State Beach, a 3,000-acre state park that runs along San Diego County’s northern border with Orange County, the atmosphere felt more like a concert tailgate than a formal government meeting. At least 2,000 people turned out to voice their opinions about the proposed project.

Underlying the 13-hour debate about the future of State Route 241 were the fundamental questions that have defined Southern California’s politics and development patterns: What constitutes quality of life: Spending less time in the car or keeping open spaces preserved? How should heavily should society weigh conservation as the population continues to grow?

Thomas Margro, chief executive officer of the Orange County-based Transportation Corridor Agencies, which proposed the toll road, described the answer to those questions as “one of the great public policy challenges of our day.”

Peter Douglas, the commission’s executive director, summed up the sentiment at the end of a presentation that detailed his staff’s objection to the project. After staff members criticized almost every aspect of the toll road, Douglas said the paramount question facing commissions was whether California had learned from its past mistakes.

“Are we as a people wise enough,” Douglas asked, “to stand firm for what is right?”

The answer to the essence of that question depended on who was standing at the microphone. Like so many projects proposed through public land — from San Diego Gas & Electric’s Sunrise Powerlink to the U.S.-Mexico border fence — the toll road afforded no middle, no common ground. It was depicted two ways.

In one vision, proponents lauded the road as six lanes of concrete perfection that would improve quality of life in San Diego and Orange counties by cutting commute times. In the other, opponents decried the road as nothing short of environmental devastation, destroying a pristine state park and driving endangered species closer to the brink of extinction so some bozo from Orange County could arrive home from work a few minutes earlier.

Mere spin, said Marco Gonzalez, an environmental attorney who represents the Surfrider Foundation, a toll road opponent. The broader lesson, he said, lay somewhere deeper.

Proponents rallied around commute times, Gonzalez said, in the same way opponents have rallied around Surfrider’s “Save Trestles” campaign, which highlighted the potential effect the road may have on the formation of San Onofre’s world-class waves.

The underlying issue, Gonzalez said, is an argument about whether the backcountry should be opened to development — not whether a road should be built or a state park preserved. Just as Surfrider used the surf break to stoke opposition against the road, Gonzalez said environmentalists similarly used the spotted owl to rally opponents against logging in old growth forests.

“Sometimes you have to use the resources available,” he said. “But that’s not just this issue. It’s everything.”

But making the argument that building the road means the end of open space? Jack Feller, an Oceanside City Councilman who supported the project, said he’d driven to Borrego Springs last week. Saw hundred of miles of open space. Building roads, well, there’s just no way around it, he said. “If you tell me there’s no open space left,” Feller said, “I’ll eat your hand.”

The difference, ecologists say, at San Onofre is that it’s coastal. And most coastal land in Southern California has already been developed, a key reason that San Diego County is home to more endangered species than any other county in the country. San Onofre State Beach was created as mitigation for development. Similar debates about development have played out along the Southern California coast before. Efforts to develop coastal Crystal Cove State Park have been rebuffed in Orange County.

Mike White, San Diego director of the Conservation Biology Institute in Encinitas, emphasized those coastal development patterns during a presentation that opponents gave to the commission. San Onofre State Beach and the adjoining Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton comprise the last remaining swath of open space along the coast between San Diego and Los Angeles.

“This is it,” White said later. “Where do you draw the line?”

Commissioners hinted at their role in the larger debate. Larry Clark, who opposed the road, said he was concerned the road would increase sprawl in southern Orange County. Steve Kram, a supporter, said the decision was “a case of bad choices — choices that have to be made because of a growing population.”

The debate over those choices highlighted the complexities of the state’s environmental movement. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, held up as a nationwide environmental hero for his progressive climate change policy, has supported the toll road. The labor movement, which has threatened an environmental lawsuit over the proposed Gaylord resort in Chula Vista, ferried in dozens of mustachioed men to support the road. Dedina and Gonzalez, bitterly divided over the best way to address Tijuana’s sewage shortcomings, were united (though not chummy) in fighting the toll road.

The day was laden with incongruities. Milford Donaldson, a state historic preservation officer, evaluated Trestles’ role in California’s post-Gidget surf movement. Tanned surfers traded insults with hirsute men from Local 652. In a region known for the NIMBY movement — Not in My Backyard — politicians representing those living closest to the project were its loudest advocates. A Coastal Commission staff analyst reflected on the esoteric benefits of what were bureaucratically slugged “surfing resources.”

And more unusual: The public actually showed up at a public hearing. When commission Chairman Patrick Kruer asked attendees to line up to voice their opinions in early evening, the queue stretched nearly 150 people deep, running the width of the massive auditorium at the Del Mar Fairground.

Many repeated the same arguments that had been trumpeted for hours: Cut commutes! Save the surf! And then a few offered different takes. There was Graham Hamilton, a 26-year-old from Santa Monica with bloodshot eyes, philosophizing about the toll road’s place in an advancing society.

“Urban progress cannot sustain itself on the prospects of environmental destruction,” Hamilton said. “I’m a surfer, but this is not about surfing. This is about our collective need to innovate transportation solutions that put our environment at the top of the priority list. [The toll road is] lazy. It’s an old, ineffective solution.”

There was Rebecca Robles and six other members of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians of the Acjachemen Nation, arguing against the project, saying it would disturb sacred land. They shook rattles and summoned their ancestors with a traditional song and single lyric: Ancestors, hear me, listen to my heart.

Luis Robles, her brother, concluded public comment with an echo of the sentiment: “Commissioners, listen to your heart.”

And then, after another two hours of debate, the commissioners made their decision. And the toll road project was halted.

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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