SANTA ANA — A federal judge allowed construction to proceed Tuesday on the embattled San Joaquin Hills tollway, rejecting a plea by environmentalists seeking to protect some of south Orange County's undeveloped coastal hills.
However, U.S. District Judge Linda McLaughlin limited the construction to the two ends of the 17.5-mile stretch of proposed tollway, sparing the most controversial sections of the project in Laguna and Bommer canyons.
The area blocked from construction, which was to begin within days, is between El Toro Road and a point just south of Newport Coast Drive.
McLaughlin's order was a victory for tollway officials who said most--but not all--of their concerns were met. Tollway officials said court-ordered delays were costing about $250,000 a day. They said Mclaughlin's order still means there will be delays, but the added cost has not been determined.
"The important thing is that we'll be under way with construction by the end of the week," said Mike Stockstill, spokesman for the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency.
Environmentalists were disappointed by the judge's order, but they saw reason for some hope in the injunction placed on construction in Laguna and Bommer canyons. They had hoped the preliminary injunction would also include several wetlands areas, including San Diego Creek near MacArthur Boulevard.
"It's very important to the habitat of Laguna Canyon," Laguna Beach Planning Commission member Norm Grossman said of Tuesday's ruling.
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. Environmentalists have complained that the tollway will threaten the area's air quality and that the project's proposal to mitigate the impact on endangered species is inadequate.