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LAGUNA BEACH : Council to Prepare to Fight Toll Road

Jubilant that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has joined the opposition to the proposed San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor, City Council members said Tuesday that they plan to begin exploring legal options for blocking construction of the tollway.

Councilwoman Ann Christoph said it appears the city is not at the point of deciding whether to file a lawsuit against the project, but “there’s always that possibility.”

Laguna Beach is the only city along the 17-mile tollway officially opposed to the project, citing in particular the highway’s effects on pristine stretches of Laguna Canyon. Citizens voted recently to purchase 2,150 acres of Laguna Canyon land known as Laguna Laurel from the Irvine Co. in an attempt to keep the canyon untouched by development.

“We are making an investment there, and any property owner would want to protect that investment,” Christoph said. “Having that corridor there is a big negative.”

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Councilwoman Lida Lenney, one of the corridor’s most vociferous opponents, said the council may not want to file a lawsuit to block construction of the tollway because of the implied threat from county officials to withhold a $10-million contribution toward the $78-million purchase price for the Laguna Laurel land.

“If we have to, let’s go and get our $10 million someplace else,” Lenney said.

But Mayor Neil G. Fitzpatrick and Councilwoman Martha Collison said administrative remedies should be played out.

“I think other people are fighting our battle right now,” Collison said, referring to the the EPA’s rejection of the corridor’s environmental document.

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The federal agency found that the environmental impact document fails to prove that the highway meets air quality protection laws, does not adequately address the protection of wetlands and wildlife habitat and should explore more fully other transportation alternatives such as mass transit.

“Basically, the EPA gives credibility to the citizens’ comments, which we haven’t had up to now,” Laguna Canyon Conservancy president Carolyn Wood said, adding that many of the EPA comments were identical to the 2,400 responses already registered from groups and individuals opposed to the project.

“I think this will put a lot more teeth into the planning of it and possibly make the planners stop and take the comments of the citizens a lot more seriously,” she said.


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