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unEARTHED. The Earthjustice Blog

Devil's Slide Was No Tunnel of Love

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View Tom Turner's blog posts
19 April 2013, 12:24 PM
It took one tough attorney and many years to finally build tunnel solution
An aerial shot of the new tunnel bypass near Devil's Slide. (© 2010 California Department of Transportation)

The first responsibility of a physician is to do no harm. The first responsibility of an environmentalist is never to accept a dumb solution to a problem when a better solution is available.

Case in point: Devil’s Slide south of San Francisco, a stretch of Highway 1 that would crumble into the Pacific every 10 years or so during a big storm. Rebuilding was time-consuming and expensive. The state of California sought a more permanent solution—and seized on one that ignited two decades of opposition resolved only when a doughty Earthjustice attorney finally stepped in.

The state decided to build a thinly disguised freeway project that would slash through remote and scenic hills and meadows. The Sierra Club and the Committee for Green Foothills opposed the idea, arguing for a tunnel. The organizations stalled the project for a dozen years with a lawsuit, but in 1983 another washout occurred and the state suggested trying to settle the case.

At this point the opposition, including the Sierra Club, began to waver. Their attorney urged settling. The state offered to build a six-lane-wide right-of-way through what had by this time become a state park; four lanes would be paved, and only three lanes painted with lane stripes, a non-solution if there ever was one. The county supervisors approved the project, as did the Coastal Commission, the state and the local political delegation.

But by this time attorney Bill Curtiss of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now Earthjustice) had been brought into the case to represent the club, the committee and other opponents.

Lennie Roberts of the committee and a staunch proponent of the tunnel remembers:

At that critical moment, some of the leaders of the local Sierra Club Chapter wanted to settle, as they felt too much time and energy had been devoted to this battle. Bill came down to the chapter meeting and informed them that this litigation was a matter of national importance, and the national board would be making the final decision.

The fight certainly would have been lost right then and there if Bill hadn't stiffened those backbones.

The legal wrangling continued for another decade, with two trips by Curtiss to the federal appeals court along the way. Each time the state was blocked.

Finally, in the mid ‘90s, county voters passed an initiative to amend the coastal plan to provide for the tunnel. Designing and building the tunnel took another 15 years, but finally this year the job was done and dozens of people turned out for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to congratulate each other on completion of a project many of them had opposed.

The moral: the earth needs a good lawyer … like Bill Curtiss.

This story plays loosely with the facts of Devil's Slide, including the legal process prior to the mid-90s. The tunnel is not in any way a "win" for the coastal environment. It is merely less bad than the five-to-six-lane bypass would have been. Much better was possible.

Lennie's comment on Bill "stiffening backbones" is only one example of critical situations in which he stepped in and made a major impact. Another occurred in 1996, when, with the Slide closed for 6 months and politicians running for cover, CalTrans was preparing to clear a final obstacle to bypass construction--a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report on noise impacts to state parklands. By that time local activists had uncovered, via a California Public Records Act request, an internal CalTrans report that confirmed the viability of a tunnel at Devil's Slide, and many individuals and agencies commented on that alternative in responding to the draft SEIR.

CalTrans' Final SEIR rebuked the tunnel as not "practicable", and confirmed the bypass as the preferred alternative. Bill found a way to let Federal Highways know that if they proceeded with the bypass, they would find themselves back in federal court for years, as the draft SEIR did not identify and evaluate the tunnel as an alternative--and therefore CalTrans' rejection of the tunnel in the final SEIR constituted a serious NEPA violation.

At that point, instead of accepting the final SEIR from CalTrans and funding the bypass, Federal Highways rejected the document and instead funded a $600k tunnel study that concluded that the tunnel was, in fact, a practicable alternative. Subsequently Measure T, a San Mateo County voter initiative requiring construction of the tunnel, passed with a 74% majority.

The Federal Highways study gave the tunnel alternative the credibility needed to convince voters. Without Bill Curtiss' intervention the study would not of happened--and we wouldn't have a tunnel today.

I wonder if a similar solution can be reached for the stretch of road that cuts through Portuguese Bend in Palos Verdes that is sliding into the Ocean on a continous basis. Do we really need to have these roads so close to the sea? It makes no sense to have to keep putting in the roads everytime a slide occurs.

I grew up in PV. The slide was triggered by a misguided attempt to push Crenshaw through to the coast. A freind of my parents was an engineer with the County at the time.

I like the fact that the slide causes constant shifting of the existing coast road. It is a good reminder not to screw with the earth. It limits, to a slight extent, further coastal development. I would hate to see another engineering disaster in thee area.

Leave it alone and accept the consequences.

After moving to SF in 1982, I marveled at the natural beauty all along highway 1, and wondered how long it would take for humans to destroy it. I am thrilled that this solution has been implemented. It is still incredible to me what we have done to this planet in 150 years, and I am thankful that we have some systems in place to keep it from being one giant parking lot!


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