Ruling Halts Prison Until 2 Suits Resolved

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner ruled Monday that the state cannot acquire 252 acres of county land for a state prison in Lancaster while two lawsuits challenging the prison are pending.

The decision brings to an abrupt halt the planning and construction process for the 2,200-bed, medium- and maximum-security prison, state officials said. It represents another setback for a project that is already in doubt because of a budget battle in the state Legislature.

In his ruling, Commissioner Herbert Klein sustained a motion by attorneys for Los Angeles County asking him to block state action to acquire land for the prison through eminent domain. The ruling "puts the entire condemnation proceeding on hold," Deputy County Counsel Jonathan B. Crane said.

The decision forced state officials to call off plans to solicit bids today for preparation of the prison site, which was to begin in August, said Deputy Atty. Gen. Chuck Shumaker. The prison was scheduled for completion in March, 1992.

Danielle Lewis, head of a Lancaster citizens committee opposed to the prison, said the decision was "very heartening to our cause."

Los Angeles County and the city of Lancaster filed suit earlier this year to block construction of the prison on grounds that the state conducted a flawed environmental impact review of the project. The county also argued that it needs the 252 acres to expand county health, fire, criminal justice and animal control facilities.

A hearing is scheduled Nov. 14 on those lawsuits, but attorneys for the state and county said they will attempt to advance the proceedings as a result of Monday's decision.

In written arguments before Klein last week, county lawyers said it makes no sense to obtain the land while lawsuits are pending that could render further work on the prison meaningless.

The city of Los Angeles has also filed a legal challenge to a proposed East Los Angeles prison, whose fate is tied to the Lancaster prison by a 1987 state law. Monday's ruling has no bearing on the East Los Angeles site.

Gov. George Deukmejian and corrections officials have argued that the legal challenges are irresponsible obstructions to sorely needed prisons, pointing out that Los Angeles County produces almost 40% of the state's inmate population but has no prisons.

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