Camp Pendleton is Southern California's biggest and most valuable piece of undeveloped land - a 19,000-square-mile island of open space where bison and bobcats coexist with bazooka-carrying Marine Infantrymen. If the peace juggernaut ever pushes the leathernecks out of Pendleton, enironmentalists want the sprawling military base to be rechristened as parkland. Congressman Jim Bates agrees, and he recently introduced federal legislation that would prohibit housing tracts, airports, yacht clubs, toxic water dumps, or any other commercial use of those brush-covered hills and unspoiled beaches.
But as Bates' Camp Pendleton Preservation Act moves slowly through Congress, state transportation planners are making progress on a six-lane expressway that would cut through the base’s northwestern corner. Named the Foothill Transportation Corridor, it would begin at the intersection of I-5 and Cristianitos Road near the San Diego/Orange County line, and head northeast into Orange County, where it would merge into another new expressway near Santa Ana. The expressways are part of the $2 billion program designed to reduce Orange County traffic jams on Interstates 5 and 405.
The 28-mile Foothill Corridor isn't just an engineer's dream. Funds for the $672 million roadway have been identified, a 1991 groundbreaking date has been set, and political support for the project is solid. And that angers some environmentalists, who predict that the expressway will be the first step in the despoiling of Camp Pendleton. "Housing follows roads, ',' and roads' are made to service ,housing;' bristles Don Wood, president of Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, the San Diego urban preservtion group that persuaded Democrat Congressman Bates to carry the Camp Pendleton Preservation Act. "This is the beginning of a piecemeal rip-off of the base. A bite here, a bite there, until there's nothing left."
Wood is especially angry that Republican Congressman Ron Packard, who has spoken out against Bates's open-space legislation, has endorsed construction of them multi-lane toll road. Noting that Packard opposes Bates's parkland legislation because of fears it could lead to the premature closure of the Marine base, Wood wonders why Packard, now "seems willing to giveaway a major chunk of Marine Corps real estate that would disrupt their training."
Conservationist Wood might be overstating his case - tentative maps indicate that only about five miles of the foothill corridor would cross Pendleton - but his concern that new housing tracts will sprout along the expressway is warranted. The expressway will be paid for by tolls collected from drivers and by permit fees levied against land developers who want to build houses nearby. Orange County land just outside the Pendleton border has been identified as a site for some of that new housing. And Marine Corps officials are expressing concerns that the roadway could have a bad effect on training exercises: one route alignment, for example, would render 1000 acres of the base unusable for amphibious landingcraft maneuvers.
Congressman Packard claims Wood's criticism is unwarranted. He says that the toll road won't "support new development because it's designed only to reduce the current gridlock." Packard also argues that the highway will "enhance Pendleton's mission by giving the Marines more access to the base." As for the apparent contradiction between his support for the expressway and his opposition to the Camp Pendleton Preservation Act, the congressman stresses that "no one wants to preserve Pendleton more than I do. I'm simply not willing to tie up future opportunities that might come there."