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San Clemente officials are set to vote Tuesday on officially leaving Orange County’s toll road agency after years of debate and lawsuits, but it remains unclear if this is an end to the fighting or simply a new chapter with more litigation to come. 

City council members started the discussions to exit earlier this year, hosting multiple meetings discussing their disapproval of the agency’s handling of the 241 freeway extension. The proposed plans for that extension would have cut through San Clemente land the city zoned as open space.   

Currently, the agency claims it has dropped any plans to extend the freeway, but the city has still shared concerns talks are happening behind closed doors at the agency after representatives opposed bills at the California statehouse that would codify the end of that project. 

“I think there’s no going back,” said San Clemente Mayor Kathy Ward during the council’s discussion on the issue April 6. “I’m not concerned about not having a seat at the table because I feel like San Clemente just doesn’t have one.” 

The city is still in a four year long lawsuit against the agency over the 241 extension, 

Normally, the city would have to wait 120 days to leave, but toll road agency board members agreed to waive that waiting period at the city’s request last Thursday. According to the board’s legal team, the city’s departure carries no financial impacts because the city is still required to pay existing development impact fees. 

But whether or not San Clemente plans to pay those fees is still up in the air. Some of the agency’s board members voiced fears the city would refuse to pay the fees once it broke ties. 

“Over the past years, I believe the relationship of the city of San Clemente with the TCA (Transportation Corridor Agency) has been difficult, to put it mildly,” said Anthony Beall, mayor of Rancho Santa Margarita. “I think it’s an invitation to new litigation.” 

San Clemente Mayor Ward denied any connection to the fees, despite the fact that council members at their April 6 meeting ordered a review of the city’s payments and plans to potentially withhold the funds if they decide they’re paying too much. 

“We have given them every opportunity to mitigate these costs and they have decided to collect and keep all the money they’re not due,” Councilman Chris Duncan said at that meeting. 

According to city staff, San Clemente has paid just under $55 million to the agency since 1989. For bonds on existing freeways, bills could continue as long as 2053 and it remains unclear what the total cost to taxpayers would be. 

Ward refused to speak to the city’s reasons for leaving at the meeting, saying a letter would be sent to the agency after council members officially voted to leave detailing their reasoning. 

Ward did not return requests for comment Friday afternoon. 

So far, Councilwoman Laura Ferguson has been the only San Clemente council member to call for remaining in the agency, saying she believes they can do more good from inside to protect their residents and raising concerns they would give up a voice on future construction and fees. 

“I can’t be supportive of it. I’m concerned about the length of time left in terms of paying down the bonds,” Ferguson said. “We need a voice; without a voice we’re silenced.” 

San Clemente’s withdrawal would be another blow to an agency that critics have called a drain on taxpayer resources with little to no tangible benefits. While it was originally established in the 1980s to fund freeways to fix a growing traffic problem, some question if it has outlived its purpose. 

Last year, a grand jury took a look at the issue, and said the agency has outlived its purpose, calling on it to shut down any expansion of its operations and focus on winding down. 

“With the exception of the repayment of its accumulated debts, there appears to be little if anything in the matter of highway planning, construction, or any county transportation activities the TCA can do that is not already being accomplished,” the grand jury wrote. 

The council is set to discuss the issue at its 6 p.m. meeting Tuesday, which can be viewed here.

 Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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