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Irvine Also Sets Sights on New Federal Courthouse

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The contest among Orange County cities for a new, multimillion-dollar federal courthouse has turned into a three-way race as the Irvine Co. and Irvine officials met Wednesday to plan a lobbying strategy for a courthouse site.

The city of Irvine thus joined in the competition with Santa Ana, the county seat, and Laguna Niguel, already home to a large federal office building, over the location of a 218,000-square-foot courthouse that is expected to cost more than $75 million.

“I’d love to have a courthouse, I think it would be great,” said Irvine Mayor Sally Anne Sheridan, who said she first heard of the idea from officials of the Irvine Co., the giant land development concern that owns more than 64,000 acres in the county. Irvine Co. owner Donald L. Bren and other company officials discussed the proposal Wednesday during a meeting with Sheridan, Irvine Mayor Pro Tem William A. (Art) Bloomer and Irvine City Manager Paul O. Brady Jr., Brady said.

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“We have vowed to work together, to put a package together,” Brady said. Company officials did not discuss a specific site for the courthouse at the Wednesday meeting, Brady said, but he acknowledged that it would have to be built on Irvine Co. property. The city does not own any land that could be used for a courthouse, he said.

Despite speculation from several sources that the Irvine Co. may be willing to provide land for a courthouse at a reduced cost, Brady said Bren did not specifically discuss economic incentives.

During an informal meeting last Friday, Sheridan said, company officials raised the possibility of locating the courthouse in the massive Irvine Spectrum commercial and industrial development near the junction of the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways.

Late Wednesday, Irvine Co. Vice President Larry Thomas said in an interview that his firm is interested in “taking a serious” look at providing discounted land for a courthouse somewhere in its landholdings, such as the Irvine Spectrum office park.

“Given all these different places, that would probably be the most likely general area, but I don’t want to rule out any others,” Thomas said, vice president for corporate communications.

“We had a meeting today with the city leadership, and they are enthusiastic about the potential of having the courthouse,” Thomas said. “They have asked us and we have agreed to work with them in the next couple of weeks to put together a proposal to make to the subcommittee at its next hearing.”

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Thomas said the company “would probably not be inclined to donate the land. But we have a history of discounting land for public institutional uses on a case-by-case basis.” Despite Irvine’s interest, Santa Ana and Laguna Niguel are not likely to give up without a fight. Santa Ana City Manager David N. Ream said Wednesday that his city has been planning for eventual construction of new federal court facilities for at least 15 years, and recently built two parking garages with 2,500 spaces that would accommodate a new courthouse.

Laguna Niguel Mayor Patricia C. Bates said that her city would be an ideal location for a new federal court building because the government already has a major office complex on property it owns there and that a site in South County would better serve the future needs of the growing region.

The House Committee on Public Works and Transportation earlier this month authorized construction of a new federal courthouse in Orange County, where the only federal judges now sitting hold court in a leased, 30,000-square-foot temporary structure in Santa Ana’s Civic Center Plaza.

For legal reasons, the authorizing legislation names Santa Ana as the courthouse site, but specifies that the location can be changed any time before Sept. 30.

The final decision on the courthouse’s location rests with the Public Works Committee’s subcommittee on government buildings and grounds. However, the committee is expected to adopt the recommendation of Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), who is leading the fight for the courthouse on Capitol Hill.

Cox has scheduled hearings on the courthouse location for June 17 at an as-yet-unspecified site in Orange County. He said his mind remains open.

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“Santa Ana is the county seat and already houses companion state court facilities and law libraries and jails and so forth,” the congressman noted. “Irvine is centrally located and may include an economic kicker on the land. Laguna Niguel is the site of existing (federal) property and may well, from a demographer’s standpoint, be more centrally located for future growth.”

Irvine’s entry into the courthouse sweepstakes caught officials off-guard two weeks ago, when Rep. Glenn M. Anderson (D-Harbor City), whose district lies solely in Los Angeles County, raised the possibility of an Irvine site at a meeting of the public works subcommittee.

Previously the General Services Administration, which administers federal buildings and property, had conducted a study that considered only Santa Ana and Laguna Niguel. The GSA recommended building the courthouse in Laguna Niguel, where the federal government already owns 92 acres of land.

Anderson, the former chairman of the public works panel and now vice chairman, earlier this year hired Jim Barich, then the Irvine Co.’s director of government relations, as Anderson’s new special assistant for public works matters. Barich had worked for Anderson in Washington for eight years before joining the Irvine Co.

In an interview Wednesday, Barich said the suggestion to consider Irvine as a possible courthouse site came from Anderson, not the Irvine Co.

“There was no inside deal,” Barich said. “The call was made from Glenn’s office to the company. . . .

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“Glenn said he was a little stunned that GSA only looked at two locations in Orange County for a courthouse (and asked), ‘Do you know of anyone who could, any city or private entity who could donate or get the land at a greatly reduced value?’ And he suggested I call the Irvine Co., which I gladly did.”

Thomas of the Irvine Co. said that “the first contact was from Anderson, I believe it was from his office.”

That call was “followed fairly closely by a contact from congressman Cox,” said Thomas. “We have throughout all of this been a responder, not an initiator.”

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