Wednesday, July 8, 2015
C.A. Rejects CEQA Challenge to Orange County Jail Expansion
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal has rejected the City of Irvine’s latest challenge to the proposed expansion of the James A. Musick Jail Facility.
Div. Three ruled Monday that the county’s supplemental environmental impact report for the project is adequate under the California Environmental Quality Act, marking the third time the appeals court has rebuffed Irvine’s efforts to stop the expansion.
The 40-plus-year-old facility is located on 100 acres of county-owned land in unincorporated territory adjacent to the city. It originally operated as an honor farm, later was expanded to house slightly more than 700 minimum security inmates, but in recent years it regularly has housed more than 1,200 inmates because of a steep increase in the jail population.
The county first sought to expand the facility in 1996 by adding 864 beds, bringing capacity to a maximum of 7,584 inmates. An environmental impact report was certified and challenged by Irvine and neighboring Lake Forest.
The cities won that case in the trial court, but the Court of Appeal reversed and found the EIR to be CEQA-compliant, although the county attempted to address some of the city’s concerns by certifying a revised EIR.
The plan languished, however, for lack of funding, until after AB 900 was passed in 2007. The legislation made up to $1.2 billion available to counties for jail construction.
Orange County applied for $100 million to add more than 1,500 beds to Musick, but ultimately decided not to go through with the project because the state attached certain conditions, including requiring the county to pay for at least 25 percent of the costs.
The county revived its interest in 2011, when the Legislature amended AB 900 as part of criminal justice realignment. Among other things, the new legislation added $132 million to the total funds available, eased the benchmarks that the state had previously required counties to meet, and limited the contribution required from the counties to 10 percent.
The county then applied for $100 million to add 512 beds. The city sued for a writ of mandate, seeking to vacate the supervisors’ decision to apply for the money and enjoining any further effort to obtain AB 900 funding until the county complied with CEQA.
In November 2013, however, the Court of Appeal upheld a trial court ruling that merely applying for funding is not a “project” within the meaning of CEQA.
In the meantime, in December 2012, the county certified the supplemental EIR. The proposed number of inmates did not change, but the buildings were reconfigured somewhat and no agricultural uses were included, the last of the farming programs having been discontinued in 2009 for budgetary reasons.
In denying the city’s petition for writ of mandate directing that a complete new EIR be prepared, Orange Superior Court Judge Kim G. Dunning found that the changes were not major, that the county adequately replied to Irvine’s objections, that a traffic study attacked by the city was adequate, and that the county had demonstrated that there were no alternatives to the loss of 65 acres of farmland contemplated by the project.
Justice William Bedsworth, writing for the Court of Appeal, said there was no error.
The methodology used for the traffic study, projecting how much traffic there would be in 2014 and in 2030 when the project is to be completed, makes sense, the justice said.
“Irvine would have us hold that the County was obligated to calculate year-by-year, intersection-by-intersection, traffic impacts that would take into account all the various permutations derivable from the variables of project phasing and nearby residential construction in the Great Park area,” Bedsworth wrote, referring to the site of the former El Toro Marine Air Station, where the county once planned to place a new international airport.
“That is not required,” the justice said. “[W]hat Irvine did here…was sufficient. And if not sufficient, not prejudicially insufficient.”
As for the loss of farmland, Bedsworth noted that there is no agriculture taking place at the site because by 2009, the county couldn’t even afford to grow food for the inmates there. And with land values averaging over $300,000 per acre in the county, and running to $2 million per acre near the project site, “finding 65 acres…to replace farmland that…was farmed by inmates trying to work off jail time...is cost-prohibitive,” a fact that none of the mitigation measures discussed in the SEIR can get around, the justice concluded.
The case is City of Irvine v. County of Orange, 15 S.O.S. 3498.
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