San Juan Capistrano

The Push to Widen Ortega

By Kim Lefner

Are sound walls on Ortega Highway in our future?
The proposed widening of Ortega to six lanes from the eastern border of San Juan to the freeway* raises questions about the impacts, and about who really benefits.

Advocates claim that widening is necessary, given the large volume of traffic that will be generated from “the Ranch” development east of town. Opponents claim that widening Ortega will turn San Juan into little more than a freeway on-ramp and off-ramp for the Ranch development. 

Opponents claim that widening Ortega will turn San Juan into little more than a freeway on-ramp and off-ramp for the Ranch development.                
Scenic Ortega Hwy as it looks today

According to the Final Environmental Impact Report (“FEIR”)* submitted to the county for the Ranch’s planned development, the Ranch is required to provide “road capacity” (i.e.; widen Ortega) in order to get county approval to build all 14,000 residential units and 5 million square feet of retail and commercial planned on our Eastern border.

The FEIR states; “Prior to the approval of each Master Area Plan, a traffic analysis that supplements The Ranch Plan EIR Traffic Report (Austin-Foust Associates, Inc., May 2004) shall be submitted for review and approval to the County, Director of Planning and Development Services. The traffic study shall include… (b) Average Daily Trips generated by uses proposed within the planning area, as distributed onto the surrounding circulation system, including the peak hour characteristics of those trips...”

 “Clearly the construction of a … road with retaining walls of up to twenty five feet in height and sound walls up to fourteen feet in height has the potential to degrade the character of the neighborhoods and the City in general unless carefully designed with full mitigation of all impacts.”- Sandy Genis Report

In fact, after reviewing the planning documents for the proposed widening of the Ortega in 2007, Sandra Genis Planning Resources, a planning consultant hired by the CEQA law firm representing the City, stated in her report; “Widening the highway will also remove an obstacle to growth locally. Absent the additional capacity, it would be difficult to access approved development at Rancho Mission Viejo. Thus, although development entitlements exist under the approved Ranch Plan, those entitlements could not be exercised without additional roadway capacity in the vicinity.” 

In addition, Genis noted that “Ortega Highway is utilized for commuting between Riverside County and southern Orange County and is near capacity during commute times. Widening the highway to four lanes would essentially double capacity of the road.” That was in 2007 when the stated plan was four lanes; now supporters of the Ranch development like Councilman Sam Allevato are advocating for widening to six lanes all the way down Ortega, which will impact the view with large freeway-like sound walls and which will likely increase traffic speed.

According to the Sandra Genis Planning Resources report, some of the negative impacts and areas of concern from the proposed widening of Ortega include:

· Noise / Soundwalls

The Noise Element of the General Plan addresses noise levels and compatible uses… However, the noise analysis in the MND does not address CNELs. Residential uses are considered a sensitive use.
Table 2.2.6-3 in the MND identifies twenty nine locations where future noise levels would
approach or exceed Noise Abatement Criteria (NAC) levels. The MND then identifies thirteen potential sound walls to mitigate the noise, although even with a fourteen-foot-tall sound wall fourteen locations would still experience noise levels at or approaching NAC levels.

· Division of the Community

The proposed project has the potential to divide an established community by increasing both road cross section and accommodating additional high-speed traffic. The City of San Juan
on opposite sides of the community to obtain egress from residential areas and to travel back and forth across the highway in vehicles, on foot, or on horseback. Absent the installation of
signalized intersections, bridges, or other means of crossing, residents on opposite sides of the
highway would be essentially cut off from each other.

· Land Use Conflicts

The area adjacent to the highway consists of low density/equestrian estate residential and
agricultural uses. Widening of the highway would result in increased noise and visual impacts
degrading the semi-rural atmosphere of the area. Decreased distance between vehicle traffic and equestrian activities would reduce the recreational value of the facility in addition to creating potential safety issues.

· Conflicts with Adopted Planning Programs

Areas to the north of the highway have been designated Very Low Density Residential under the Land Use Element of the General Plan. This designation is applied to areas which have unique or significant hillside features such as ridgelines, creeks, slopes, sensitive habitat areas of mapped landslides. Thus, the city has made a determination that this area is sensitive. Areas to the south of the highway are designated for Medium Low Residential use.
Goal 4 of the Circulation Element of the General Plan is to minimize the conflict between the
automobile, commercial vehicles, pedestrians, horses, and bicycles. By bringing vehicular traffic closer to equestrian uses, conflicts would be exacerbated. The narrower paved area proposed by the City of San Juan Capistrano in the area of the existing equestrian easement would help reduce this potential conflict.

* See OCTA Phase 2 plan for ‘Ortega Widening’ under “Community Links”

Questions/concerns about the widening of Ortega can be emailed to the City Council at:  

To see the EIR, visit the CCS website at:, under “Community Links”

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