The opinion of the court was delivered by: CURTIN
I. HISTORY OF THE LITIGATION
On November 23, 1973, the plaintiffs commenced this action seeking to enjoin the defendants from continuing the construction of a bridge over Lake Chautauqua. Plaintiffs base their motion for a preliminary injunction on the theory that defendants have failed to comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act [N.E.P.A.], 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq., the Federal Aid Highway Act [F.H.W.A.], 23 U.S.C. § 101 et seq., the Clean Air Amendments of 1970, P.L. 91-604, 84 F. Stat. p. 1676, and the Department of Transportation Act, as amended, 49 U.S.C. § 1651 et seq. Plaintiffs' major allegations are that public hearings as required by the statutes were not held, that an Environmental Impact Statement [E.I.S.] as required by Section 102(2) (C) of N.E.P.A. was not filed, and that a similar statement as required by Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 1653(f), and by 23 U.S.C. § 138, was not filed. Defendants generally deny the allegations and also set out various affirmative defenses, including an allegation that the action is barred because of laches.
On January 17, 1974 an order of reference to United States Magistrate Maxwell was signed by United States District Judge John O. Henderson. The order of reference is as follows:
This matter having come on before this Court upon the application of plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction, and upon the motion of the defendant, Brinegar, for a hearing solely on the issue of laches and/or delay and the equitable considerations in connection therewith, and upon the agreement of the parties that such hearing is necessary, and good cause appearing therefor, it is
ORDERED: that this matter is hereby referred to United States Magistrate Edmund F. Maxwell, as special master, to hear and report with all due dispatch, the facts of this matter concerning the issue of laches and/or delay and the equitable considerations in connection therewith as they relate to the appropriateness of granting a preliminary injunction or dismissing this action.
Following Judge Henderson's death in mid-February 1974, the matter was referred to my part. Oral argument was heard on April 30, 1974 on confirmation of the Magistrate's report.
II. THE MAGISTRATE'S REPORT
The Magistrate made two conclusions of law:
1. There has been no showing of unconscionable delay on the part of the plaintiffs, or such prejudice to the defendants, as to constitute laches.
2. The defense of laches should not apply in this action.
The Magistrate also found:
It is thus recommended that plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction be granted, pending a trial of the merits of this case. (Magistrate's Report at 27.)
Defendants objected to the Magistrate's report on three major grounds: (1) that the Magistrate erred in finding the date of May 9, 1973 (Plans, Specifications and Estimates approval) as the date on which plaintiffs had noticed that defendants would not comply with the law; (2) that the Magistrate erred in failing to consider the entire highway project instead of only the bridge; (3) that the Magistrate's recommendations on the preliminary injunction were beyond the scope of his authority.
In respects other than the objections noted, the defendants accepted the facts found by the Magistrate. Further proceedings were adjourned two weeks so that defendants could present further information on the Appalachian Commission, but nothing more was received by the court on May 13, 1974 except a joint stipulation of certain facts. Neither defendant desired any further evidence to be presented upon the question of whether a preliminary injunction should issue.
Defendants' disagreement with the Magistrate's finding that the defense of laches does not apply is based on two arguments: (1) that the time from which plaintiffs knew that their cause of action under N.E.P.A. and other relevant federal statutes accrued occurred prior to Plans, Specifications and Estimates [P.S. & E.] approval on May 9, 1973, and (2) that plaintiffs should be ...