A lush region along Puerto Rico's north coast will be off-limits to developers until a lawsuit filed by conservationists is resolved, an appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The ruling temporarily bars any Puerto Rican agency from issuing construction permits for the proposed Northeast Ecological Corridor located just north of El Yunque rainforest, a popular tourist stop.
Developers have long been interested in the area because of its backdrop of emerald-green mountains and white-sand beaches with turquoise waters. At least five major developments have been proposed for the area, including three resorts and a mall.
Conservationists welcomed the ruling, saying it respects their concerns outlined in the lawsuit.
"This is extremely important," said Angie Colon, president of an environmental group seeking to protect the corridor. "There have been a lot of irregularities in this process."
The court's ruling is considered a setback for the administration of Gov. Luis Fortuno, who last year signed a law changing the region's zoning to allow for development. Supporters had said it would help the U.S. Caribbean territory emerge from a deep economic crisis.
But conservationists said the law left more than 430 acres (177 hectares) of the roughly 3,200-acre (1,300-hectare) area without protection.
In August 2011, they filed a lawsuit to protect the region, considered among the last remaining nesting sites of the U.S. leatherback turtle. Celebrities such as actors Benicio Del Toro and Edward James Olmos and environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. joined the cause.
Officials with the Planning Board and the Department of Natural Resources who are named in the lawsuit and supported the rezoning did not return calls for comment on Wednesday.
The Puerto Rico Senate in the upcoming weeks expects to debate a proposal to designate the entire corridor as a nature reserve.
Senator Larry Seilhamer, one of the authors of the proposed bill, said the court's decision gives him time to hold extensive public hearings on the issue.
Both he and Colon accused the government of holding a limited number of public hearings before approving the rezoning last year.
"I think we're in a better position today than we were several days ago," he said.
In 2007, former Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila had designated the area as nature reserve, allowing only small, eco-friendly projects and some recreation areas. Fortuno reversed that decision two years later.