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Supervisors Approve Impact Study on Jail Despite Orange Suit

Times Staff Writer

For the third time in almost a year, the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday approved an environmental impact report for the expansion of a branch jail in Orange, despite the city’s objections and its continuing lawsuit over the project.

With the vote, the county plans to proceed in the next few weeks with hiring a contractor to begin construction. The first phase of the facility could open later this year.

The branch facility will be the county’s second major jail project since 1985, when a federal judge ordered the supervisors to relieve the seriously overcrowded jails.

Orange Council to Meet

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However, Orange Mayor Don E. Smith said Wednesday that the City Council will meet next week to decide whether it wants to file for an injunction to try stopping the project.

He also said the council has authorized him in the interim to negotiate with Supervisor Don R. Roth, who represents Orange, about the possibility of modifying the project.

“We all are concerned about the cost for both parties of litigation,” Smith said. “It’s something we’d like to at least discuss first.”

In December, 1987, the supervisors approved expansion of its Theo Lacy Branch Jail from 622 beds to 1,326. The project is expected to cost $47 million, with $18 million contributed by the state.

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In the same 4-1 vote, Roth succeeded in limiting the facility’s capacity to 1,437 inmates and prohibiting the housing of maximum-security inmates at Theo Lacy, which is a medium-security facility.

Roth then took the odd position of backing a jail in his district and working to convince the city officials that it would be the best option they could get.

Council Decided to Sue

But the Orange City Council voted, 4-1, to sue the county. Since then, the city and county have been negotiating, and the county has added a facade to the project that makes the building look more like an office building. And the county has placed more guards and another wall around the building to increase security.

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In May, the supervisors adopted an amendment to the first environmental impact report to add some modifications. Then in August, after a Superior Court judge threw out the county’s environmental reporting for a different jail project in Anaheim, the supervisors ordered the Theo Lacy study revised to include the judge’s concerns.

Rich Adler, an analyst in the county’s Environmental Management Agency, said the total cost of the environmental impact reporting on the Theo Lacy project is about $135,000 for the three reports.

In the last version, the judge ordered the county to consider the impact on the community in a “worst-case scenario,” in which overcrowding might force the new jail to be “double-bunked.”

In that case, the report projected the facility could house up to 1,968 inmates. But it did not predict any negative effect on surrounding property values or public safety.

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Area Crime Increase

Wednesday, an attorney for Orange, Susan M. Trager, said the environmental impact report is incomplete because it does not adequately address the possibility that the new facility would increase crime in the area.

She also said that it would not be proper to release prisoners in that area, just off The City Drive across from The City Shopping Center, and that it could jeopardize the city’s plans for nearby road improvements.

“I marvel at how far the planners have gone to find ways to reach the conclusions we knew long ago would be in the report today,” Trager said.

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Roth responded: “It’s not easy for me to support the addition of jail beds in my district. But look at the numbers that force me to make that decision.”

Roth said the county granted early release last year to 42,670 prisoners who would otherwise have been jailed longer if there was enough capacity in the county’s jail system. He said that included about 18,000 who did not complete their sentences and about 25,000 who were cited and released without being held at the jail.

Unanimous Vote of Supervisors

The supervisors’ vote was 4-0, with Roger R. Stanton absent.

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