While Orange County is moving forward on a series of new freeway expansions, many of the county’s southern cities say they were barred from weighing in on an agreement that will steer the new developments.
The cooperative agreement contract creates a path for three new projects, including the extension of Los Patrones Parkway as a non-tolled freeway, the widening of Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano, and the addition of a carpool lane to the 5 freeway from Avenido Pico to the county line.
The new construction is being done to help relieve the traffic pressure from developer Rancho Mission Viejo’s 14,000 new homes according to county supervisor Lisa Bartlett.
“Looking at the growth of Rancho Mission Viejo with 14,000 homes, we need to have traffic relief on our streets, our arterials and the one highway we have through south county,” Bartlett said of the plan at the Sept. 28 county supervisors meeting.
The plan was created by Bartlett, the city of San Clemente, the OC Transportation Authority, the county Transportation Corridor Agencies and developer Rancho Mission Viejo, according to a county staff report.
The transportation authority is responsible for public transportation, roads and freeways throughout the county, while the corridor agencies manage OC’s toll roads and their bond debt.
But some south county city council members aren’t fans of the agreement, saying they were intentionally kicked off the discussion table and weren’t allowed to advocate for their cities’ needs.
In a letter to the board for their Sept. 28 meeting, Rancho Santa Margarita Mayor Tony Beall, who also serves on the toll road agency, alleged Bartlett went out of her way to cut out most of south county from having a say in the report.
“At the March 11, 2021…(TCA) Board of Directors meeting, Chair Peggy Huang formed a working group comprised of the directly impacted stakeholders,” Beall said, adding the cities of San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita were all included in that group, along with Huang and Bartlett.
“Although they were made members of this working group, Supervisor Bartlett and the City of San Clemente never participated in this working group,” Beall continued. “Instead, Supervisor Bartlett shortly thereafter formed a county ‘stakeholder working group’ – and although a request was made to include the Mayor of Rancho Santa Margarita and San Juan Capistrano in that working group, that request was rejected.”
Bartlett did not respond to requests for comment on her role in both working groups.
Mission Viejo Mayor Trish Kelley wrote a letter to the Orange County Board of Supervisors with an identical accusation to Beall’s, adding that the agreement was no longer necessary because San Clemente’s lawsuits against the toll road agency had failed.
“It fails to recognize the interests of 180,000 residents who live in Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, and San Juan Capistrano,” Kelley wrote. “Frankly, we don’t understand why the Supervisor representing the 5th district would purposefully initiate an agreement impacting all of the other cities in her district.”
The agency and San Clemente fought a years-long legal battle over a potential toll road extension through the city that ended earlier this year with a judge dismissing all claims against the agency.
San Clemente ultimately left the Transportation Corridor Agencies in May of this year over the argument.
A spokesperson for the toll roads declined to say exactly how much the lawsuits had cost the agency, but said it was over $1 million in legal fees.
The cities of San Clemente and the Orange County Transportation Authority both approved the plan as well at their meetings earlier this month.
The only dissent came from San Clemente City Councilwoman Laura Ferguson.
OC Supervisor Doug Chaffee abstained from the board of supervisors’ vote on Sept. 28 and voted against the project from his seat on the OC Transportation Authority’s executive board on Oct. 11.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.