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Tollway Work Is OKd at 2 Ends : Transportation: Federal judge temporarily bans construction around sensitive, undeveloped Laguna Canyon hill area.

September 08, 1993|JEFFREY A. PERLMAN | TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

SANTA ANA — A federal judge Tuesday allowed construction to proceed on parts of the embattled San Joaquin Hills tollway, rejecting a plea from environmentalists seeking to protect some of south Orange County's undeveloped coastal hills.

But U.S. District Judge Linda McLaughlin temporarily spared the most controversial areas around Laguna Canyon's picturesque rolling hills and limited construction to the two ends of the 17.5-mile stretch of proposed tollway.

The order cleared the way for bulldozers to begin work within days on a northern section of the tollway in Newport Beach and the southern portion which connects with Interstate 5 in San Juan Capistrano.

McLaughlin's ruling was a victory for tollway officials who said most--but not all--of their concerns were met. Tollway officials estimated that court-ordered delays were costing about $250,000 per day. They said McLaughlin's order still means there will be delays, but the added cost has not been determined.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 9, 1993 Orange County Edition Part A Page 3 Column 5 Metro Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Tollway--A San Joaquin Hills tollway route map on Wednesday failed to show that Newport Coast Drive would become part of the tollway from a spot south of Bonita Canyon Road to MacArthur Boulevard. A corrected map appears on B4.

"The important thing is that we'll be underway with construction by the end of the week," said Mike Stockstill, spokesman for the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency. "The north and south ends are the most complicated parts of the corridor and they will take the most time to build, so we're happy with this decision."

Environmentalists were disappointed by the judge's order Tuesday, but they were pleased that Laguna Canyon was spared.

They had hoped the preliminary injunction would also include several wetlands areas, including San Diego Creek near MacArthur Boulevard. And they argued unsuccessfully in their briefs that any construction would give the project momentum that would be difficult to turn around.

The plaintiffs said, however, that they felt vindicated by the judge's decision to grant an injunction on the most sensitive areas. It proves, they said, that environmentalists have not been mounting frivolous legal challenges just to cause delay and extra expense.

"We're in this to to make some points here, to protect some habitat, and show that the system hasn't been followed the way it should be," said Norm Grossman, a Laguna Beach planning commissioner and a board member of Laguna Greenbelt Inc., one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Elisabeth Brown, president of the Laguna Greenbelt, added: Without the injunction, "there wouldn't be much of a lawsuit left because the corridor agency could go ahead and the damage would occur there."

Judy Davis of Citizens Against the Toll Roads said the judge's ruling may mean that two ends of the road will be built, but not the middle. "I don't see how they can collect enough tolls from either end to pay off the bondholders," Davis said. "That may kill the project."

The preliminary injunction issued Tuesday is expected to remain in effect for at least five months, when both sides are scheduled to reappear in McLaughlin's courtroom. Instead of a trial, both sides have agreed to seek a summary judgment from McLaughlin. A status conference is scheduled Jan. 24, and McLaughlin said a hearing could follow two weeks later.

The court action is another step in a series of legal challenges to the tollway over the last few years that have largely been decided in favor of the project's construction. The complaints about the project's environmental impact reports have already been examined in state courts for several years.

In February, 1992, an Orange County Superior Court ruling found that environmental studies of the project were adequate. The ruling was upheld three months later by the state's 4th District Court of Appeal.

In January, environmentalists took their case to the federal court, filing a suit that also challenged the adequacy of the project's environmental impact statement. When toll road officials announced last month that they planned to begin construction of the highway, attorneys went to court to seek a temporary restraining order to prevent construction.

McLaughlin issued a temporary restraining order two weeks ago and ordered both sides in the case to appear in court Tuesday with proposals for a partial injunction rather than a total ban.

In announcing her ruling Tuesday, McLaughlin revealed that she had driven to the tollway path over the holiday weekend to examine the area for herself. She said the southern and northern segments of the project were already heavily urbanized and that significant environmental damage had already occurred there.

McLaughlin also said the southern and northern ends of the project could still be independently viable highways, even if the complete toll road is never built. She said the two ends "connect several existing major roads to freeways" and provide traffic relief to thousands of motorists each day.

"The public will benefit," McLaughlin said.

She also indicated that both environmentalists and the corridor agency have "prospects of success on the merits" of the case if it comes to trial.

The judge read her ruling from the bench without hearing any oral argument.

In the court briefs submitted by lawyers for the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency, officials proposed that construction occur on about two-thirds of the route. They volunteered to leave out the Laguna Greenbelt areas, including Laguna Canyon, and to restrict their work near wetlands.

The judge gave them more of a victory than they sought by not imposing any ban on wetlands activity.

But a side effect of the ruling could cause a one-year delay in the creation of a protected habitat for the gnatcatcher, an endangered bird. Dirt needed to build the new habitat was to be taken from areas where construction is banned under the preliminary injunction.

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