Long beset by lawsuits and delays, the $60-million Theo Lacy Branch Jail expansion has finally cleared local objections, and work could begin within a few months, officials close to the project said Monday.
The Board of Supervisors on Wednesday will take up a proposed settlement of the long-fought legal case and review a revised environmental impact report for the project. City of Orange officials and owners of a nearby mall filed suit last year to block the expansion, but this time they will endorse it.
“This has been going on for three years, and it’s been a tough issue,” said Orange Mayor Don E. Smith. “We’re glad to see that it’s going to be concluded.”
Bob Loewen, a lawyer who represents The City Shopping Center adjacent to Theo Lacy, said his client is also satisfied with the proposed settlement. “We feel that we have resolved our differences with the county and are ready to go forward,” Loewen said.
If approved, the settlement and revised environmental impact report will clear the way for the addition of 704 inmate beds that are badly needed to relieve the county’s pressing problem of jail overcrowding.
The jail now has beds for 622 inmates, and the 704 additional beds would expand it to 1,326 beds. The county is under a federal court order to relieve overcrowding, and Theo Lacy is its only near-term solution to the problem.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Don R. Roth, whose district includes the branch jail, predicted Monday that the expansion project will win board approval and that work will begin by the end of the summer.
“It’s taken an untold amount of time to get to this place, but we now have everybody in concert to proceed,” Roth said. “We’re ready to go.”
Richard Adler, an Environmental Management Agency official who helped prepare the revised environmental impact report for the supervisors’ review, agreed, saying that if all goes as planned Wednesday, bids for the project will be turned in sometime next month. The project is scheduled for completion in August, 1992.
The board approved the project on Jan. 11, 1989, but a lawsuit by the city of Orange and Tishman West Management, which operates The City Shopping Center, blocked construction. That lawsuit, which challenged the county’s original environmental impact report, was argued all the way to the California Supreme Court.
The county lost the first round in Superior Court, and the judge there blocked construction . Although the county won its appeal and the Supreme Court let the appellate ruling stand, county lawyers still must return to Superior Court to present their revised environmental report.
The settlement that the board will consider Wednesday, however, all but guarantees that the next trip to court will be merely a formality.
Orange and Tishman Management both have indicated that they are prepared to go along with the settlement and will make their approval known to the court. “The result would be the end of litigation on the EIR,” according to a letter sent to board members Monday by Environmental Management Agency Director Michael M. Ruane.
Under the settlement, which was finalized last week and transmitted to members of the board Monday, the county agrees to cap the inmate population of the jail at 1,326 prisoners except in cases of “emergency or unusual circumstance.” An earlier draft of the expansion plan allowed the jail population to swell to 1,968 inmates in the event that overcrowded conditions at other jails forced officials to fall back on Theo Lacy.
Now, however, the county could only add those additional beds to cope with “an event outside the control of the county, including, but not limited to, a natural or man-made disaster such as earthquake, fire, or flood,” the settlement states. “ ‘Emergency’ and ‘unusual circumstances’ shall not mean ‘jail overcrowding’ in other county facilities.”
In addition, the settlement provides that no maximum security prisoners will be housed at the jail, and that “every effort should be made to protect the aesthetics and security of and to prevent noise impacts on the Orangewood Children’s Home,” which is in the same block.