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Vasquez Caught in Middle of North-South Jail Issue

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Amid the arid hills and sprawling ranch-style homes near Gypsum Canyon, residents boast that their community is as safe as it is quiet and pleasant. And they passionately insist that it’s no place for a jail.

“The idea of a maximum-minimum security jail here is obscene,” said Carol Cantwell, a member of the local parks and recreation commission. “It’s the safety of everybody’s daughter and not just mine that we’re worried about. And it’s sons, too.”

About 25 miles south in Lake Forest, another tidy neighborhood inhabited by a not-so-different group of young families strikes a similar chord: In their case, they’ve spent years living a few hundreds yards from the minimum-security James A. Musick Branch Jail, and they’re tired of it.

“Darn right we’d like to get rid of it,” said Pam Russell-Ogden, who moved into a new home in Lake Forest four months ago. On her front lawn, a pair of signs warn visitors that the house is guarded by a security system that promises an “armed response.”

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“We just bought this home, and we installed the security system,” Russell-Ogden said from behind a partially open front door. “They tell us there are people in there who do drugs, and they periodically walk away. Well, where are they going to come? Right here. We’re the next street over.”

Caught between these two communities and their fears is one elected official: Orange County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez. On Dec. 18, the interests of these South County and North County residents will clash head on, and Vasquez, who represents both areas, will face a moment that no politician would envy.

That day, the Board of Supervisors is expected to consider a staff recommendation to move ahead with building the Gypsum Canyon jail, which is slated for a site just outside of Anaheim and Yorba Linda. Vasquez has long opposed that, but the county staff now is suggesting that the government raise some of the money for the $1 billion-plus project by closing the Musick jail and selling the land there for development.

So Vasquez has a choice: He can reverse his longstanding opposition to Gypsum Canyon and vote to build a new county jail there. If he does that, some Anaheim and Yorba Linda residents say they will never forgive him. Alternatively, Vasquez can stay the course, and in the process dash the hopes of Lake Forest and El Toro residents who see Gypsum Canyon as the key to ridding themselves of their unwelcome neighbor, the Musick facility. Those constituents will not soon forget Vasquez’s vote either.

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“Gaddi is caught in the middle,” Yorba Linda Councilman Henry W. Wedaa said in an interview last week. “Now we’ll see what kind of politician he is because we don’t want it here and they don’t want it there.”

At the other end of Vasquez’s district, Bill Krause, general manager of the Lake Forest II Master Homeowners’ Assn., agrees. “The supervisor is going to have to acknowledge what his constituency role is here and what it is in the North County, and he’s going to have to make a decision,” Krause said.

For his part, Vasquez calls the talk of closing Musick to fund Gypsum “highly speculative” and says he refuses to raise false hopes in Lake Forest by suggesting that the Musick jail might soon close.

Meanwhile, the supervisor remains steadfast in opposing Gypsum Canyon.

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“My opposition to Gypsum Canyon is well-documented and unchanged,” Vasquez said in one of several interviews last week.

Vasquez joined with Supervisor Don R. Roth in voting against selecting the canyon as the county’s new jail site in 1987, and their two votes were enough to block acquiring the property through condemnation, a procedure that requires four votes of the board. They’ve held to that position ever since, and progress on the Gypsum jail has stalled.

But with the county’s jail overcrowding problems mounting and a federal judge poised to consider imposing strict new limits on the county jails, pressure is building for the supervisors to move ahead with plans for a new facility. The Dec. 18 session will give them a chance to demonstrate progress when they take up a recommendation to reaffirm their support for Gypsum Canyon and to direct their staff to draw up plans for financing construction of that facility.

It won’t be easy. The county is in deep financial trouble, and planners concede that they have no way to pay for Gypsum. Selling Musick would help, but Vasquez and others note that it may be a more complicated transaction than it appears on the surface. The Musick jail sits on the edge of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, so selling the property for new homes probably is not realistic. It could, however, be transformed into office space, as could the land it abuts to the west.

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The Musick facility covers 100 acres, and turning it into an office park could bring the county upward of $100 million, hardly enough to cover the cost of building Gypsum Canyon, but enough to make a sizable down payment.

More troublesome is how the county would deal with the 1,200 prisoners that Musick can house on a typical night. It would presumably be years between Musick’s closure and the opening of Gypsum Canyon, and during that period the county would have no place to house those inmates.

But even with some questions unresolved, news of the staff report recommending that Musick be shut down has already reached Lake Forest. And residents there are eager to know whether Vasquez will represent their interests when the matter comes before the Board of Supervisors.

“I hope they close this jail,” said Eugenia Rios, a Lake Forest resident who has lived near the Musick jail for 13 years. “It worries me all the time. Why should (Vasquez) keep this open near us if he can close it?”

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Across the street, Carol Barlow agreed. “They say that when they escape, they leave the area,” she said. “But you never know. What if my car was sitting right out here, and one of them needed to get away?”

Neighbor after neighbor agreed, almost without exception citing the nagging uncertainty that comes with living near a jail. Moreover, as long as the Musick facility exists, the residents worry that the county might someday enlarge it or turn it into a maximum-security facility. Only with the jail gone will they finally rest easy, residents said.

But if there is concern in Lake Forest, it hardly compares with the virulent public opposition that exists in and around Gypsum Canyon. Residents of that area live farther from the proposed jail than the distance between Lake Forest homeowners and the Musick facility. But in the Anaheim canyons, they are faced with the prospect of a 6,720-bed maximum-security jail moving in just up the road. That jail would house accused killers, rapists and other prisoners accused of serious crimes and awaiting trial.

The thought of it has residents of Anaheim and Yorba Linda seeing red.

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“There’s more breakouts than we really hear about,” said Craig S. Miller, who chairs Citizens Against Gypsum Canyon Jail and who is building a home a little more than a mile from the proposed jail site. “I have three children. I worry about the type of transients that are going to be in the area.”

Like his neighbors, Miller is watching Vasquez.

“I hope Gaddi keeps his commitment to us,” he said. “He promised to keep the Gypsum Canyon jail from happening. I don’t think he can change his vote at this late date.”

But, Miller, who currently lives in Yorba Linda, added later: “Lots of politicians make a lot of promises that they don’t keep.”

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Anaheim city officials are for the most part confident that Vasquez will stand by them, but they too are aware of the pressure that the supervisor’s South County constituents might bring to bear. To protect itself, the city has moved to incorporate Gypsum Canyon so that it can control the development of the area, preferring to let the Irvine Co. build thousands of homes on the land.

And though city leaders are sympathetic to the pleas of Lake Forest residents, they echo the views of their constituents when they declare that Gypsum Canyon is the wrong place for a jail.

“I cringe when I think about this,” said Anaheim Mayor Fred Hunter, whose home is a few miles from the site and who has long opposed it. “The whole area on both sides of the freeway is single-family homes. Why would you want to put a jail in middle of single-family homes? It’s mind-boggling.”

This issue is simple, Hunter adds, uttering a refrain that haunts the jail issue generally and Vasquez in particular: “I’m not against a jail. I’m just against a jail here.”

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