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Opposition, Technicalities Fetter Canyon Jail Project

Times Staff Writer

More than a year after the County Board of Supervisors voted to build a 6,000-bed jail in Gypsum Canyon, the project has fallen far behind schedule and county officials say it appears that construction won’t begin until at least 1990.

Asked last week whether he was confident that the jail will eventually be built, Supervisor Thomas F. Riley said: “I think that is a strong word to use. Right now we’re in a pretty precarious situation. . . . I don’t know where we’re going these days.”

County Administrative Officer Larry Parrish said: “I’m as confident as you can be under the circumstances. I’m not blind to the hurdles.”

The most recent blow to the Gypsum Canyon project was the supervisors’ decision last week to put the so-called centralized-jail initiative on the June, 1990, ballot, after more than 112,000 signatures were gathered in a petition effort. The measure would restrict all future county jail construction to Santa Ana.

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Not Backing Down

County officials acknowledged after the vote that, with the fate of the centralized-jail initiative unresolved, it will be difficult to proceed with some aspects of the Gypsum Canyon project. Nonetheless, the project’s supporters within county government do not appear to be backing down--though some say that is largely because they do not have many other choices.

“If we ran into this many problems at what we consider the best place (for a jail), you can imagine the problems of finding another place,” Parrish said.

The county had planned as recently as last summer to break ground for the Gypsum Canyon jail, next to Anaheim Hills and Yorba Linda, early next year. But officials said they have now abandoned that schedule and don’t know when they will begin to build, though not before 1990 at the earliest.

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“I wouldn’t venture a guess on (timing) right now,” said Steve Blaylock, the county’s project manager for the jail.

The environmental impact report for the project was supposed to be completed in September, but now it won’t be finished until at least January, said Richard Adler of the county’s Environmental Management Agency.

The jail-restriction initiative is the result of a campaign begun after the supervisors voted in July, 1987, to build the Gypsum Canyon jail. What began as a small band of Anaheim residents opposing the project has grown into a well-funded and politically potent organization with the resources to battle in court and to influence politicians’ careers.

3 Most Serious Obstacles

But the initiative is not the only obstacle facing the Gypsum Canyon project. In fact, county officials believe it is one of their minor concerns, because they believe the restriction will eventually be declared unlawful. There are more serious obstacles, any one of which could kill the project. They include:

* Lack of money. Though officials refuse to reveal their latest cost estimates, the county estimated last year that the jail would cost at least $660 million. The county is already so financially strapped that it is close to laying off employees. Officials have no idea where they will get that much construction money--or the minimum of $40 million a year they expect it will cost to operate the facility. This summer, the supervisors decided against a ballot measure in November asking residents to pay for the jail because they are convinced that it would not pass.

* Difficulty buying the Gypsum Canyon site. The land is owned by the Irvine Co., which does not want to sell the property for a jail. A spokeswoman said the company is “willing--not eager--but willing” to cooperate if it’s necessary. But she said the company would expect to be fairly compensated and to be assured that the jail project would not negatively affect future development that the company might propose nearby.

* Opposition from nearby cities. Anaheim has been an active foe, has promised litigation if the county proceeds and has considered annexing the site, making it part of the city rather than unincorporated county territory.

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The problems with the Gypsum Canyon plan underscore a dilemma the county has been struggling with for more than 10 years. In 1976, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit against the county alleging intolerable conditions caused by overcrowded cells.

In 1978, a federal judge ordered an end to county jail overcrowding. In 1985, the county’s lack of response to that order led the judge to find Sheriff Brad Gates and the supervisors in contempt of court. That changed things.

The supervisors prepared a master plan calling for expansion of their jails, a new medium-sized facility in Anaheim and a large jail in a remote location--big enough in theory to relieve overcrowding problems well into the next century. The system was to be expanded from a capacity of fewer than 3,000 inmates to more than 10,000.

Intake-Release Center

In January, the first part of the plan was realized when the county opened its new Intake and Release Center in Santa Ana, adding about 380 beds to the main men’s facility for more than $60 million.

But everything else has been a can of worms.

The medium-size jail, planned near Anaheim Stadium, was supposed to relieve overcrowding while the county built the remote facility in Gypsum Canyon. But plans for the Anaheim facility--known as the Katella-Douglass jail--were halted earlier this year through a lawsuit filed by the city of Anaheim. The judge ruled that the county could still build the facility but that research on the impact the jail would have on the surrounding area would have to be redone.

Officially, the Katella-Douglass site is still part of the county’s jail plans. But even Riley, who voted for the Anaheim project, said he does not believe that it will ever be built.

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Money became a major problem for the Katella-Douglass jail, which is expected to cost at least $140 million, when foes pushed a bill through the Legislature in 1986 prohibiting the use of state money for the project.

Supervisor Don R. Roth, whose district includes Anaheim, is a vocal critic of the county’s jail plans.

Roth said he doesn’t know whether the Gypsum Canyon jail will ever be built. But he said he believes that the county should take a step back and reevaluate its master plan.

“It’s a bleak situation,” he said.

Other foes echoed those sentiments.

“I have a feeling it is not going to be built,” Anaheim Mayor pro tem Irv Pickler said. “It’s just a vicious cycle, and no one wins in a situation like this.”

A Multitude of Hurdles

Rick Violett, head of the Taxpayers for a Centralized Jail, which sponsored the initiative, said the jail plan is “going to be subject to the (environmental impact report), land acquisition, financing, the initiative and lawsuits. Other than that, it’s a clear road ahead.”

The county jails, meanwhile, remain crowded far beyond planned capacities. The system is housing more than 4,000 inmates on any given day; its capacity is about 3,100.

The Sheriff’s Department, which operates the county jails, is trying to reduce the problem by releasing nonviolent criminals--about 28,000 already this year.

Sheriff Gates said he does not know how long the county can go before the overcrowding problems become dangerous. But looking at the difficulties involved in building a new jail, he said: “There is certainly tremendous concern on my part. The situation is extremely serious for us.”


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