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DEL MAR - It's democracy in action. It's a carnival.
It's hot, muggy and buggy inside the cavernous O'Brien Hall at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, where a crowd approaching 2,000 is gathered to tell federal officials what they think about the proposal to extend the 241 Toll Road south to meet the I-5 Freeway south of San Clemente.
More than half in the crowd are wearing green, blue or black T-shirts to show their opposition to the road, which would course through San Mateo Campground, San Onofre State Park and by the Trestles break.
Surfrider volunteers had 3,000 T-shirts on hand, and were passing them out briskly all day. Surfrider will rally after the hearing ends tonight outside the hall, "to send everyone home on a positive note, since no decision will be made today," Stefanie Sekich, Surfrider's Stop the Toll Road co-ordinator, told me this morning.
Action sports companies got behind the effort again today, as they did for a Coastal Commission hearing on the subject in February. Commissioners voted then to reject the road, setting up today's hearing.
But the industry presence isn't quite as obvious this time around. Sole Tech brought its etnies RV, Billabong brought its bus, but there weren't any other brand vans visible in the parking lot by midday.
Still, lots of folks wore company logos or said they worked at Hurley, Volcom, etnies and others.
Bob Mignogna told me he thinks the turnout is about the same as for the February hearing - and that disappoints him, because he was hoping for an even larger turnout.
In a day-long hearing scheduled to conclude at 8:30 p.m., speakers are making their 3- or 4-minute pitch to build or stop the road. Opponents say the road will kill the state park, impinge on Trestles, and really isn't necessary.
Supporters, who were just as loud in their orange T-shirts, say the road is needed to relieve congestion, add jobs and improve air quality.
Bob, left, told me he was disappointed by the format, too. The first seven hours are set aside for comments by elected officials - about two-thirds are speaking in favor of the road - and other organizations, such as opponents like SIMA and proponents like trade unions.
"There were something like 500 individuals who asked to speak today, and only 50 of them at best will get to speak. So this meeting isn't accomplishing what the government said it wanted: input from the public," Bob told me as he waited for his turn at the microphone.
Already, the government has received more than 35,000 comments on the road, David Miller, the spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told me this morning. NOAA scientists and lawyers are parsing those comments - and the remarks made today - and will make a recommendation on whether to greenlight the road to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.
Gutierrez has said he hoped to make a ruling by the end of November, Mignogna told me. Miller told me that Gutierrez has until the first or second week of January to make his decision - though he could determine that he needs an extension to study the science or law further, pushing a decision beyond the inauguration of the next president.
Mignogna figures toll-road opponents have a 50-50 chance of prevailing with Gutierrez, who is a Democrat in Republican president George W. Bush's cabinet. Opponents include lawyers at the National Resources Defense Council, who are meeting with legislators and regulators in Washington to explain their views - as are backers of the road.
Meanwhile, it was up to the people to express their views. After every speaker, the crowd would cheer or boo, raise or lower their thumbs, waive their "stop" and "build" signs.
The T-shirt slogans probably summed up the speakers' views best: "Less Traffic/More Jobs" vs. "Save the Park/Stop the Toll Road."
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