Countywide : Tollway Backers Win Another Court Battle

Supporters of the San Joaquin Hills tollway were handed another in a string of victories on Thursday when a state appellate court in Santa Ana ruled that the project's lengthy environmental reviews were adequate.

The sharply worded ruling by the state's 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana upheld Superior Court Judge James P. Gray's February, 1992, findings.

Written by Justice Thomas F. Crosby, the 3-0 appellate opinion criticized Laguna Greenbelt and other environmental groups for "misrepresentations of the facts and the record" in part of their appeal.

Among other arguments, the groups claimed that the environmental impact report for the 15-mile, $1.2-billion project failed to state that there would be a significant, adverse impact on air quality because some carbon monoxide levels will exceed federal standards near the tollway.

The opinion, however, found that the environmental impact report "served its purpose as an informational document. It was not required to solve the smog problem in the Southern California basin as well." The court declined to make a judgment about which side was correct about the scientific arguments.

Environmentalists were somewhat miffed because the three-justice panel is considered to be one of the most liberal in the state and was appointed by Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown.

But tollway opponents were able to keep nearly $120,000 in attorney's fees and court costs awarded them by Judge Gray for bringing the public interest lawsuit. The appellate panel denied the corridor agency's bid to overturn the money award.

Attorney Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who helped represent tollway opponents, said he was unsure whether Thursday's decision will be appealed to the California Supreme Court.

Elisabeth Brown, co-founder of Laguna Greenbelt, criticized the opinion, saying: "There's no way that this EIR was adequate. People are still finding out new things about what this road will do to them."

Tollway agency chief William Woollett Jr. said the decision "should convince the plaintiffs that their legal arguments have failed. This is an opportunity for them to abandon their legal challenge and follow the lead of the city of Laguna Beach to meet with the (tollway agency) and enter into a constructive dialogue to reach settlement."

After years of mutual hostility, Laguna Beach officials, who are strongly opposed to the tollway, have met twice with tollway officials to explore possible changes to the highway's massive interchange at Laguna Canyon Road and a high vehicular bridge expected to span the canyon there.

Tollway opponents have several other lawsuits underway, including a federal court challenge to the project's environmental reviews. No hearing dates have been set.

If a judge finds that more environmental work is required, the project can be slowed, possibly improved and made more costly. But, most legal experts say, it can't be killed outright.

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