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By Shawn Raymundo

State legislation that would prevent the 241 Toll Road from ever extending through San Clemente has been sent to the Senate floor where lawmakers are expected to vote on it in the coming days, the city announced last week.

As of Monday, June 15, the measure, Senate Bill 1373, which Sen. Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) introduced to clarify in existing law that State Route 241 will not run through the city of San Clemente, was listed under the Senate’s third-reading file, meaning it awaits discussion among members and a roll call vote.

SB 1373 will need 21 votes to pass in the Senate before it can move on to the State Assembly where it will require a 41-vote threshold. The Senate vote is expected to occur on or before June 26—the last day bills introduced in their respective houses can be voted on this session.

Late last month, the California Senate Transportation Committee unanimously approved SB 1373, referring it to the Senate Appropriations Committee. With the measure not requiring an appropriation, it was sent to the Senate floor.

According to the measure, a section of the state’s Streets and Highways Code currently states that “Route 241 is from Route 5 south of San Clemente to Route 91 in the City of Anaheim.” If passed and later enacted by the governor, SB1373 would have the 241 end where it currently does now—at Oso Parkway, east of Mission Viejo.

“It is encouraging to see SB 1373 go to the full Senate for a vote,” Bates said in a press release from the city. “SB 1373, when signed into law, will memorialize the March 12, 2020, decision by the TCA and allow South Orange County residents to sleep better, with the knowledge that their community will not be divided by a major thoroughfare cutting thru their protected open space.”

In mid-March, the boards of the directors for the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) unanimously approved plans to further pursue the extension of Los Patrones Parkway—an arterial, untolled route—as part of the efforts to relieve South County traffic.

The decision formally nixed contentious proposals to have the 241 extend past Oso Parkway to connect to Interstate 5 by cutting through San Clemente and parts of San Juan Capistrano. Instead, the TCA is now studying the plan to extend Los Patrones.

Los Patrones, which begins at Oso, currently ends at Cow Camp Road in Rancho Mission Viejo. Under the plan, or Alternative 22 as it’s identified in the ongoing South County Traffic Relief Effort, Los Patrones would continue down to Avenida La Pata, right up the San Clemente city limit.

A previous version of the bill, which Bates recently gutted and amended to its current iteration, proposed to prohibit construction of a major thoroughfare in San Clemente’s open space areas or conservation easements.

Interim City Manager Robert Dunek explained last month that the language in the current bill mirrored language that outgoing Assemblymember Bill Brough had in his Assembly Bill 3331. That measure is no longer being pursued.

Brough will not be serving a fourth consecutive term next year as his reelection hopes were dashed in California’s Primary Election this past March. Brough came in fourth place out of five candidates, disqualifying him from appearing on the November ballot.

Republican Laurie Davies, Mayor of Laguna Niguel, and Democrat Scott Rhinehart, who formerly worked as a real estate broker, will move on to the General Election.

The Senate vote on SB 1373 comes as the city is looking to settle its years-long legal battle against the TCA, as well as begin to wind down its spending on TCA-related experts that have, so far, cost more than $1 million in taxpayer money.

The city and The Reserve Maintenance Corporation filed separate lawsuits against the TCA in August 2017, both challenging the agencies’ 2016 settlement agreement with various environmental groups that blocked the TCA from extending the 241 south of San Clemente.

Under that 2016 settlement, the TCA agreed not to build a 241 Toll Road extension through the San Mateo Watershed and Trestles. As a result of that agreement, the TCA and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) began examining other extension proposals.

“SB 1373 fixes the issues with the original SR-241 Toll Road alignment,” Councilmember Chris Hamm said in the city’s release. “As a surfer and environmentalist, I supported the TCA’s settlement to not put the Toll Road Extension through Trestles. However, trading one environmentally-sensitive area for another is not the right move either.”

In their 2017 suit, the city and The Reserve, a homeowners association, alleged that the agreement between the TCA and the environmental groups was made without an environmental review or public input.

Citing the language in the Streets and Highways Code, the city also alleged that any route extension connecting the 241 to the I-5 via San Clemente would go against the legislatively intended route of the toll road.

The city and The Reserve had filed a joint motion for preliminary judgment to block the TCA from considering alternative routes. Riverside Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia, however, denied that motion back in late January.

During the city council’s June 2 meeting, City Attorney Scott Smith reported that the council voted unanimously in favor updating a proposed settlement agreement with the TCA over the lawsuit.

The updated settlement offer, Smith explained, was to be presented to the TCA as part of confidential settlement negotiations.

According to a staff report that will be presented to the council on Tuesday, June 15, the city’s estimated budget for TCA-related experts will be reduced as certain contracts will either be discontinued or revised in the coming fiscal year.

A separate report city staff gave to the council regarding legal fees and costs back in mid-February noted that the city’s ongoing legal challenges against the TCA since 2016 had had amounted to roughly $1.33 million as of this fiscal year. More than $1 million of those monies went to hiring TCA experts.

Smith had explained to the council that the experts provided information on a regular basis about traffic engineering and the history and interplay of the TCA. The goal of contracting those experts, Smith added, was to have them engage with the city rather than publish findings and opinions elsewhere.

The city’s current contract with Aprea & Mitcheli, a government relations firm hired for advocacy and legislative support, will continue through March 2021 for a cost of 180,000, to include all advocacy and not just TCA, the June 16 report states.

Other consulting contracts with Englander, Knabe & Allen; IBI; Stan Oftelie; and Mike Roos expire at the end of the fiscal year on June 30. Those agreements will be converted to either “non-legal, small as needed” contracts or a “legal experts” on an hourly as-needed basis.

The city’s budget for “TCA-related experts is estimated to go from $390,000 to no more than $50,000,” the city states in its latest report.

The council will meet via teleconference for its regular public meeting beginning at 6 p.m. The meeting can be livestreamed through the city’s YouTube channel.

SR_1Shawn Raymundo
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.

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