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County Refuses to Sell School Site to Santa Ana District : Supervisors Also Delay Action on Countywide Jail Ordinance

Times Staff Writer

In a decision that left Santa Ana Unified School District officials stunned, angry and threatening court action, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted 3 to 2 not to sell six acres of land to the overcrowded district for construction of an elementary school.

The sale request was defeated after supervisors voiced concerns about selling county-owned surplus property before resolving the question of where additional jail space should be constructed. The six-acre parcel was once considered as a site for a county jail facility.

The jail controversy arose Tuesday as the supervisors were faced with taking action on a countywide initiative that would require all future county jail space to be built in Santa Ana. But rather than deciding whether to put the initiative on the ballot or adopting it as an ordinance, the supervisors delayed action on the measure until Oct. 16 at the request of County Counsel Adrian Kuyper, who said he wanted to study the matter.

Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez led the opposition to the $3.2-million land sale to the school district, contending that the county should sell no surplus property until the jail site issue and related court cases have been resolved. Joining Vasquez in voting against the sale were Supervisors Don R. Roth and Thomas F. Riley.

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“It would be premature for us to eliminate an option that we have,” Vasquez said before the vote. “It is important for us to hold the line on our options.”

The proposed school site is adjacent to the County Operations Center complex on Grand and McFadden avenues in Santa Ana and around the corner from Century High School, which is under construction. The county, the state and the school district have been negotiating the sale for more than two years.

Vasquez said his main concern Tuesday was that opponents of the proposed Katella-Douglas jail site near Anaheim Stadium or those fighting expansion of the Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange might challenge the county in court for not seeking alternative sites.

He acknowledged that several locations, including the school site, were considered and rejected before Gypsum Canyon was selected as the jail location. But Vasquez said the county should be cautious because a major contention in similar litigation involving the Katella-Douglas site has been that the county did not thoroughly seek other locations.

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Immediately after the board voted down the land sale, over the objections of Supervisor Roger R. Stanton and Board Chairman Harriett M. Wieder, Assistant Supt. Anthony J. Dalessi told the supervisors that the district would take the county to court.

He said it would seek to have the land in question condemned and transferred to the school district, using the district’s powers of eminent domain.

Dalessi told reporters that the Santa Ana land sale had been a “done deal.” It had been approved, he said, by the state and agreed to by county General Services Agency staff members. The GSA had recommended that the supervisors approve the sale.

The school planned for the site was a two-story, 620-student facility to be called Kennedy Elementary.

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Diane Thomas, a school district spokeswoman, said later that any court action would have to be approved by district trustees but that court action was the most likely course.

The school board has scheduled a special meeting to discuss the supervisors’ action for 5:30 p.m. today at the district’s adminis trative offices, 1405 French St., Santa Ana.

Thomas said construction of Kennedy Elementary School and nearby Century High School is part of an ambitious district building plan to relieve severe overcrowding in the county’s largest--and the state’s ninth largest--school district.

Under the state-approved plan, the district is to build 11 elementary schools, one intermediate school, one high school and one alternative high school. It also plans refurbishing and expanding existing schools.

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Thomas said that temporary facilities capable of serving about 400 elementary school students have been constructed at an elementary school near the Kennedy site and that those students were to be transferred to Kennedy once it was built.

The school’s opening date had been scheduled for 1990.

Two Issues Cited

Kuyper said there would be two issues in an eminent domain lawsuit--whether the district would put the land to better use than the county and whether the county was being offered just compensation for its property.

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He said the county’s posture in such a suit would depend on what legal strategy the school district adopted.

Thomas and Dalessi said the county had agreed in writing to the $3.2-million sale price for the land.

Santa Ana Vice Mayor Patricia A. McGuigan, who was at the board meeting Tuesday, told the supervisors that she was concerned that Santa Ana schoolchildren were being held “hostage with a piece of property.”

She later said that it was “unjustifiable” that anyone would think of building a jail on the site because it is in a high-density residential area and a high school is already under construction around the corner.

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McGuigan contended that Tuesday’s vote is “going to hurt” Vasquez “because these are everybody’s constituents, but they are Hispanic children.”

Vasquez’s response was that it was “unfortunate” that McGuigan had raised “the issue of ethnicity.”

Stanton, whose district includes Santa Ana, predicted after the board vote that the school district would succeed in taking the land in court.

“To what avail was this vote? It was a totally futile act,” Stanton declared. “It’s as if the board took the money of the county taxpayers and taxpayers in the school district, put it in a pile and burned it.”

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He said that “to even think” of building a jail on the site in question “is unconscionable.’ A jail on the six-acre site, he said, would have to be “40 stories tall” to meet the county’s space needs.

Roth said he had voted against the land sale for essentially the same reason given by Vasquez.

Riley said he was swayed by the argument that the county should keep the land as an “option” after hearing it for the first time at the board meeting Tuesday.

“I came down (to the board meeting) to vote for” the sale, he said.

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Riley added that he was also swayed by Bob Bennyhill, an Orange resident who said in comments before the full board that Orange would sue the county over the planned expansion of the Theo Lacy Branch Jail.

Jail space has been a major issue in Orange County for more than 10 years. In 1985, a federal judge held Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates and the Board of Supervisors in contempt of court for failing to resolve overcrowding. County jail facilities are operated by the sheriff’s office.

After first selecting a controversial jail site near Anaheim Stadium, the board, in July, 1987, voted instead to build a 6,000-inmate jail in Gypsum Canyon east of Anaheim Hills.

Residents of Anaheim Hills and Yorba Linda, angered by the selection of the Gypsum Canyon site, launched a petition drive to get a measure on the ballot limiting jail construction to Santa Ana.

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The drive ended, after several aborted starts, last month when a group calling itself Taxpayers for a Centralized Jail presented the county registrar of voters with 112,000 petition signatures, about 70% more than needed to get the initiative on the countywide ballot.

The signatures were certified Aug. 31, leaving the supervisors with the options of voting to put the measure on the ballot or adopting it as a county ordinance. It was that decision that was postponed Tuesday to Oct. 16.


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