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Judge Temporarily Stops Tollway Project


SANTA ANA — A federal judge temporarily blocked construction of the San Joaquin Hills toll road Monday in a move hailed by environmentalists but decried as a costly delay by the agency building the highway.

"This is a very significant decision," said Joel R. Reynolds, an attorney representing environmental groups seeking to block the road's construction. "The (temporary restraining order) was the only thing standing in the way of bulldozers destroying the Laguna Canyon greenbelt."

Bulldozers were poised to begin construction in Laguna Canyon on Saturday, but the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agencies had postponed work until Monday's hearing. Now construction may not begin for up to six months if environmentalists prevail at another hearing scheduled for Sept. 7.

"We have at least stopped the grading in the sensitive area of Laguna Canyon for two weeks," said Norm Grosman of the Laguna Canyon Conservancy.

U.S. District Judge Linda McLaughlin granted the two-week delay after attorneys from the National Resources Defense Council challenged the adequacy of environmental impact studies. They asked for an immediate delay on the grounds that irreparable harm would be done to the ecosystem before the court could hold a full hearing on the subject.

Transportation Corridor Agencies officials estimate that the two-week construction delay could cost up to $250,000 a day. But they still believe the road, some 20 years in the planning, will be built.

"We're positive, we're confident," said attorney Rob Thornton. "We will prevail on the merits."

The 17.5-mile, $1.1-billion project would connect the Corona del Mar Freeway in Newport Beach to Interstate 5 in San Juan Capistrano, slicing through wilderness areas as well as newly developed communities such as Aliso Viejo.

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