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Ruling Clears Way for Biomedical Facility in Caspers Park

Times Staff Writer

A state appellate court Tuesday gave its go-ahead to plans for a 100-acre biomedical research facility in Ronald L. Caspers Wilderness Park near San Juan Capistrano, rejecting claims that the project’s developers sidestepped normal environmental checks.

Buoyed by the ruling from the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana, developers at the Nichols Institute Reference Laboratories now plan to begin construction on the once-stalled project and hope to move into their new home in about 18 months, an executive for the San Juan Capistrano company said.

The appellate court, upholding an Orange County Superior Court ruling, stood unswayed by a group of local environmentalists who argued that changes in the scope and design of the proposed facility demanded a new, updated study of potential damage to the scenic park.

“Needless to say, we’re disappointed,” said Rachel Hooper, a San Francisco attorney who represented the Fund for Environmental Defense, a group formed by Fullerton College biology professor Charlotte Clark to protest Nichols’ proposed research and biomedical testing facility.

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“This project will, without question, have a significantly adverse impact on the park that surrounds it--on views from the park, on the flora and fauna, on the acoustics for campers,” Hooper said.

But an environmental study concluded differently. And the appellate court on Tuesday found little merit to the environmentalists complaints about that review process and concluded that “presumably (the environmental fund) would be satisfied only if the county were to allow no development on the site.”

The court asserted that Nichols followed all environmental laws in planning the project, as did the Orange County Board of Supervisors in approving it. The court emphasized that “it is not our task to judge the wisdom of the board’s approval in allowing development of the Nichols project in the middle of Caspers Wilderness Park.”

When it was proposed in 1981, the research facility at the junction of Ortega Highway and Lucas Canyon Road was to border the wilderness park. But the acquisition of several thousand new acres to Caspers park effectively engulfed the proposed research facility within the park.

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The majority decision from the appellate court drew a sharp rebuke from Justice Thomas F. Crosby Jr., who dissented in the opinion.

“The public is being denied the right to be heard . . . and to require county officials to defend, if they can, the placement of a major industrial complex smack-dab in the center of a wilderness park,” Crosby said in his dissent.

Crosby asserted that Nichols’ change in the number and design of its buildings, along with the park’s acquisition of new land around the facility, clearly constituted major revisions that require a new assessment of the potential for environmental harm.

By failing to realize this, Crosby remarked, his colleagues on the court showed “an inability to see the forest for the trees.”

With the affirmation of the appellate court, Nichols’ chief financial officer Jim Whitmer said the company now expects to move ahead with plans to phase in the construction of 23 buildings at the Caspers site, covering about 400,000 square feet and 100 acres.

Whitmer said that the research park will have “absolutely no negative effect” on the surrounding area.

“This is a welcome verdict, a great verdict,” Whitmer said. “This has hung a cloud over us that affects our ability to do definitive things on the project in terms of financing. But now we’ll be able to move ahead.”

Hooper refused to say whether environmentalists would appeal the ruling to a higher court.

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