By Dug Begley

A proposed parkway connecting San Jacinto and Corona might run east-west, but what divides most supporters and opponents are highs and lows.

Many residents in the valleys and lowlands around Perris and east of Interstate 215 give the Mid-County Parkway a thumbs-up. Opponents are concentrated in the mountains and atop the Gavilan Plateau south of Lake Mathews.

Both sides have two, possibly three, chances left to discuss the 32-mile project and tell Riverside County Transportation Commission members what they think before environmental documents on the project move to the final stage.

Transportation commission staff members prefer the southernmost alternative of the five remaining choices. The route follows Ramona Expressway near San Jacinto to Placentia Avenue in Perris, then crosses agricultural and low-density properties west of Perris before heading toward Cajalco Road in Corona.

Draft environmental reports released Oct. 10 confirmed the staff’s preferred route was the cheapest, would displace the fewest number of homes of any of the plans and used the least acreage.

But the route was not an across-the-board winner. Other routes had the least effect on threatened species and less potential impact on the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, an attempt by local officials to preserve 153,000 acres of undeveloped land in the next 20 years.

The preferred route has run into stiff resistance from residents around Lake Mathews, who argue their rural area should not be bisected by a parkway, which many contend is really a freeway.

Cindy Ferry, an outspoken critic of the road, urged her neighbors to speak up at a meeting last month of the Residents Association of Greater Lake Mathews.

Ferry said association leaders are also raising money to hire engineers to examine the 1,000-plus-page draft environmental report the transportation commission released.

“We need to protect ourselves,” Ferry said at the Oct. 15 meeting. “They have experts, and we need our own.”

Critics of the plan showed up last week at a public meeting held in Corona to discuss the Mid-County Parkway. Among their concerns is increased noise in the area and a suspicion the road will become a popular route for trucks traveling to warehouses and distribution centers along I-215.

Many of the 115 attendees said the route was a mistake, and officials have not done enough to warn residents.

Harold Meeks, 52, spent more than three years building a 4,200-square-foot house near Lake Mathews Drive. If officials choose an option for the parkway close to Cajalco Road — not the preferred option, but still under consideration — his dream home will be bulldozed for an offramp.

“I would have never done it if someone would have told me,” said Meeks, an electrical contractor who oversaw construction of his home. “What would have been the point if someone can just come by and build a road?”

Meeks said what frustrated him most was the years he spent talking with county planning, transportation and code-enforcement officials, not to mention the real estate agent who sold the land.

“Why didn’t they say ‘This land is along the route of a road that one day might be built,’ ” he asked.

Build, Baby, Build

But opposition to the road waned last week at public meetings as the location moved east. About 75 people showed up in Perris, many with questions about when officials will buy their property. But in some cases, people were hoping for sooner rather than later, officials said.

Cathy Bechtel, project development director for the transportation commission, said some residents struggling to make mortgage payments after their interest rates increased urged officials to start taking property now.

Supporters of the parkway contend the road is needed to help handle the growth going on in Perris and San Jacinto, and help connect commuters to their jobs in western Riverside County and Orange County.

“This is going to help open the San Jacinto Valley up,” said Brad Lofgren, a former San Jacinto resident who lives in Sun City. Lofgren, who develops family land in San Jacinto and works as a real estate agent, said a good way to handle the growth and spur development is building the parkway.

“I hope it gets built and gets put in to the best result,” Lofgren, 49, said after a Mid-County Parkway meeting in San Jacinto.

Lofgren’s father, Carlton Lofgren, agreed, but both stressed they were withholding final judgment on the road until they see specifically what transportation officials are proposing.

“I don’t know about all those bridges in Perris,” Carlton Lofgren said, pointing at overpasses planned for the route to connect Perris streets around the parkway. “Bridges are a lot more expensive than they think. You’ve got to maintain them and mow around them. That might be a problem.”

Still Meeting

Opponents and supporters of the plan have chances to comment on the plan, including two public hearings Thursday and Nov. 12. Transportation commission officials will also accept comments via e-mail and postal mail until Dec. 8.

Transportation commission deputy director John Standiford said a request by critics in the Lake Mathews area for a meeting in their neighborhood is also under consideration. Standiford said the possible meeting would be held later this month, and likely organized by Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster.

Buster, who represents the area where some of the strongest opposition is centered, said he is skeptical of the parkway’s planning.

“The more I look into it, the more questions and problems I have with it,” Buster said Friday.

Nearby Cajalco Road is already planned for widening to four lanes, Buster said, which might be capable of handling at least short-term growth. Buster questioned why transportation officials are forging ahead on a major roadway that has about $300 million of the $3 billion price tag accounted for, and years before it can be built.

“There is no money in sight for this road,” Buster said. “To put over all those threats of eminent domain around these people just is not right when we can expand Cajalco. … I’m all for future planning, but this seems like the worst kind of planning.”

After the comment period on the draft environmental reports closes in December, officials must compile the comments and start the yearlong process of finalizing the report. Local, state and federal officials must sign off on the report.

The 32-member county transportation commission will decide which route will be used after the final report is finished, probably in late 2009.

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