In a blow to toll road planners in Orange County, President Bush signed an amended military bill this week that would require them to follow potentially restrictive state environmental laws.
The tollway, which would complete Orange County's network of turnpikes, would cut across San Onofre State Beach, a popular camping and surfing spot.
The amendment to the military authorization bill was pushed by Rep. Susan A. Davis (D-San Diego).
Without it, the toll road agency could have avoided following restrictive California environmental laws.
The Transportation Corridor Agencies, which proposed the 16-mile Foothill South turnpike through southern Orange County, sought a federal exemption to avoid state environmental laws and streamline the approval and regulatory process for the controversial road.
Toll road officials and supporters have said the road would result in traffic relief for the southern part of the county, but opponents say it would affect campgrounds, wild lands, Native American burial sites and famous surf spots, including Trestles.
The estimated $875-million project is scheduled to be reviewed Feb. 6 by the state Coastal Commission, which meets at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. It is considered a critical vote for the project.
In a prepared statement, Davis said the road would have a "devastating impact" on the "unique environment" and recreational resources at San Mateo campground and Trestles Beach, one of California's premier surfing breaks.
"There is no reason why it should have received a special exemption," Davis said.
San Onofre, a state park, is on land leased from Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base. The exemption had allowed federal law to apply to the controversial project when it conflicted with state law, which is often more stringent.
Lance MacLean, a Mission Viejo councilman and chairman of the board that governs the Foothill-Eastern tollway, said the agency sought the exemption because it needed to determine which authority -- state or federal -- it was to follow for the proposed route.
"We needed to know what laws would be enforced on federal property," MacLean said. "Opponents will call it special legislation. It was not special legislation but clarifying legislation."
Removal of the federal exemption no longer allows the agency to defend lawsuits against the Foothill South by contending that state courts have no jurisdiction in the matter, said James Birkelund, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a tollway opponent.
"The big picture here is the toll road agency has been trying to avoid both state and federal environmental laws and has lobbied for and gotten riders to defense bills to do so," Birkelund said. "We applaud Davis because the law now ensures that this project will comply with state law as with any other project."