Last week, driving north from San Diego through Orange County, I engaged in a secret and somewhat twisted pleasure – I ponied up my four-bucks-and-change to get off I-5 and I-405 and traverse the 15 miles from San Juan Capistrano to Costa Mesa on California State Route 73, otherwise known as the San Joaquin Hills Toll Road.

It was a beautiful drive along one of Southern California's loveliest routes, up and down the rolling San Joaquin Hills, across Laguna Canyon, with lots of views of high-end subdivisions and a glimpse of the ocean here and there. It was easy, too. Separated from the rest of Orange County traffic by the four bucks, I drove at full speed surrounded by only a few other cars.

What made my drive on SR 73 so perverse is that I never really thought the road should be built. I came to this conclusion while writing The Reluctant Metropolis. I devoted two chapters to longstanding environmentalist battles against projects in Southern California. One was the Ahmanson Ranch project, along Highway 101 on the Ventura/Los Angeles County border, and the other one was the San Joaquin Hills toll road.

In writing these chapters, I came to the conclusion that Ahmanson Ranch should be built and the San Joaquin toll road should not be built – largely because I thought the environmental damage done by the road would be far greater than the damage done by the housing project. You can't build 3,000 houses without damaging the environment some, but you can cluster and mitigate. On the other hand, there's just no way to build a highway through a place like Laguna Canyon without fouling things up.

In the end, however, the San Joaquin toll road got built. Meanwhile, the state paid $150 million to buy Ahmanson Ranch, which had obtained all of its development entitlements and had won all the environmental lawsuits.
Why did I turn out to be wrong? It's partly the consequence of what Southern California really needs as a region. But it's also partly the consequence of how power and money were deployed in each situation.

Although the toll road's environmental damage is undeniable, I'll admit that the region probably needs highway lanes in Orange County more than it needs houses near Woodland Hills. Not building housing at Ahmanson Ranch made life a little tougher for a lot of people – commutes are a little longer, houses are a little more expensive. Not building more highways in Orange County makes life miserable for lots of people stuck in traffic.

But I don't think that's the real reason things turned out the way they did. The real reason is that, in the end, more power and money went toward building the toll road than toward not building it … whereas more power and money went toward not building Ahmanson Ranch than went toward building it.

Orange County has pretty much always been ruled by development interests, so enviros there always have an uphill battle. In the toll road case, they did a better-than-average job of kicking up a fuss and tying the project up in court, but, in the end, the pro-road forces had more money, more public support, and better lawyers.

The case of Ahmanson Ranch was different. In Calabasas – just over the hill from Malibu – the money and power of the entertainment industry proved more than adequate to the task, in spite of the fact that the legal arguments were weak.

Ahmanson Land Co. – owned by the beloved Los Angeles financial institution Home Savings of America – had gotten all the way to the end, even winning or settling all lawsuits filed by neighboring jurisdictions, environmentalists, and homeowner associations. At that point, however, the Westside glitterati stepped in. Director Rob Reiner and HBO executive Chris Albrecht bankrolled an ongoing campaign to get the state to buy the land. They even got a couple of rallies out of Martin Sheen, who at the time played the president on "West Wing".

By this time, Home Savings had been sold to Washington Mutual of Seattle, meaning the whole power equation had changed. Instead of a beloved L.A. savings bank against NIMBYs, this battle was now out-of-town financial sharks against the Wednesday night president. It didn't hurt the development opponents that the governor, Gray Davis, needed their support in his ultimately unsuccessful battle against a recall. Only days before the 2003 recall election, the state announced it would to buy Ahmanson Ranch.

So I'm not going to feel guilty the next time I drive up SR 73 – or through scenic Calabasas on Highway 101. No matter what the landscape looks like, it has been shaped by the predominant power and money in the area. And that's OK with me.

– Bill Fulton