Sheriff Defends Selection of Site in Greenbelt for New County Jail

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A new Ventura County jail could start receiving inmates as soon as 1994, the Sheriff's Department said Friday in a position paper designed to defuse opposition to the site between Ventura and Santa Paula.

The three-page paper, signed by Sheriff John V. Gillespie, addressed contentious issues that have fired the 2-year-old debate over the proposed jail site, such as the facility's effect on the environment and whether it is the forerunner to development in an area historically limited to agriculture.

The Sheriff's Department, which operates the 11-year-old jail in the county Government Center, has warned that crowded conditions are generating tensions and that a crisis could result.

"Tension increases and a lot of systems start to break down, even things as simple as food delivery," Assistant Sheriff Richard S. Bryce said.

Much of the opposition to the proposed $53-million jail has come from Santa Paula. Opponents say the planned 157-acre facility would set a dangerous precedent by infringing on the area's greenbelt.

A lawsuit to halt the jail project, filed by the city of Santa Paula and two of its council members, was rejected in May by a Ventura County Superior Court judge.

Last week, the Santa Paula City Council voted to appeal that decision. The attorney representing the city, Rochelle Browne, said Friday she expected an appeal to be filed in a few days.

"It ain't over till it's over," said Les Maland, Santa Paula's mayor pro tem, referring to the court appeal.

The proposed jail hasn't stirred up much debate among Ventura city officials. For example, the Ventura City Council has taken no position on it.

Neither has Ventura Mayor Richard Francis. Still, Francis said in an interview Friday that "personally, I'm concerned every time a greenbelt is endangered."

"I don't have any current intention to bring the issue to the council, but all that can change depending on what the environmental impact report says."

The sheriff released the position paper in advance of the public unveiling of the environmental report, expected later this month, Bryce said.

Public hearings on the report will begin in November and a final Ventura County Board of Supervisors vote on the project could come in January, he said.

The current jail, which began accepting inmates in September, 1981, was designed for 400 inmates. Its current population of men and women is nearly 1,000 and, at times, has risen to about 1,200.

About 60% of the new jail's cost will be underwritten by voter-approved state bond measures with the county providing the balance through long-term borrowing.

Up to an additional $15 million will be needed to pay for the jail's staff and to operate the facility, Bryce said.

That part of the financial equation "is going to be very difficult," said Richard Wittenberg, the county's chief administrative officer.

Like practically every county in the state, Ventura County will have to be creative to find extra cash. But, Wittenberg said, the problem will be addressed before ground is broken.

Furthermore, Wittenberg said, financing jail operations is high on the agenda of the County Supervisors Assn. in Sacramento. In any case, he added, only a relatively small portion of the $15 million will be required when the jail starts operating.

Whatever the solution, Wittenberg said, the bottom line is "we have to have a new jail."

The first stage of jail construction is planned for about 20 acres on what is known as the Todd Road site, next to California 126. The jail would be a medium-security facility initially holding about 400 inmates for up to a year's incarceration. Ultimately, it would house 2,000 inmates.

Most of the inmates would be serving time for misdemeanor convictions.

Additionally, some prisoners would be allowed to work in the lemon groves surrounding the jail. Any surplus produce would be marketed to the public, authorities have said.

In the position paper, the sheriff said the new jail is not expected to trigger further development.

"At the California Youth Authority in Camarillo, there has been virtually no development to the areas adjacent to the facility since it was built in the '60s," the paper said.

"Opponents . . . have cited several environmental issues as reasons for not building," the paper said. Among the issues it noted were concerns over earthquakes, flooding and the disturbance of Indian artifacts in the area.

"I want to assure these people, as well as all county citizens, that the jail will not be built in such a manner that would place staff and/or inmates in harm's way," the sheriff said in the paper.

Santa Paula Mayor Maland said the jail is proposed for a greenbelt established by the cities of Ventura and Santa Paula in 1963. The area should be dedicated to agriculture, he said.

Times correspondent Paul Payne contributed to this story.

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