Environmentalists succeeded Wednesday in heading off approval of a coastal development permit for the San Joaquin Hills tollway, a $778-million project already slowed by legal and regulatory quandaries.
County staff members had urged approval of a key grading permit for the tollway. But 10 preservationists--delivering impassioned objections over legal, environmental and financial concerns--persuaded the County Planning Commission to hold off voting.
Their appeals worked. Citing unanswered questions about the project, the five commissioners unanimously agreed to delay a vote until Feb. 27 to allow for further review.
"We have a lot of things left to answer," said Commissioner Clarice A. Blamer, who just began last month to serve on the commission.
The tollway, first proposed in 1972, would cut through the coastal hills for 15 miles, linking Interstate 5 in San Juan Capistrano with the Corona del Mar Freeway in Newport Beach.
The coastal permit being considered by the planners would allow grading of 20 acres, moving 360,000 cubic yards of earth, plus grading up to 150 feet above the roadway.
The county planning permit is one among several approvals needed from myriad county, state and federal agencies for the tollway to begin.
But opponents hope that denial of a grading permit would force the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency to reroute the road and stall plans further. They have already slowed the project with a lawsuit pending in Superior Court in Santa Ana.
In attacking the project Wednesday, South County preservationists maintained that the tollway would ravage the area's open space and that it would be irresponsible of the county to move ahead with approval with legal and environmental challenges pending.
The critics also asserted that tollway planners have not furnished some details of construction and are short on their funding sources, threatening to leave area residents with a half-finished toll road.
Caroline Wood of the Laguna Canyon Conservancy warned: "Man cannot replace what God has put there, no matter how much money" is spent.
After the board agreed to delay the vote, Laguna Greenbelt president Elizabeth Brown said: "I'm pleased that the commission seems to have really listened to our concerns. . . . There are some real uncertainties about this project."
But other foes fear that the panel's delay may only put off the inevitable.
The corridor agency's chairman, John C. Cox Jr., later described the concerns raised by critics as oft-repeated "scare tactics" and said he is confident that the commissioners will approve the permit in three weeks to help meet the county's burgeoning traffic needs.
"I don't know why they wouldn't," he said. "For them not to would be unconscionable."