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Repeated Vandalism of Drain Pipe Delays Nellie Gale School : Sabotage: Drainage of site so that school can be built has been obstructed by vandalism to drain about 10 times, allowing water to flow back onto the site.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In an apparent effort to make sure a wetlands area in an upscale Laguna Hills neighborhood stays wet, a pipe installed to drain the land so an elementary school can be built has repeatedly been vandalized, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said Thursday.

“This is a real unusual circumstance,” Sheriff’s Capt. Doug Storm said. “The issue is not the vandalism of the pipes. The issue is whether or not there’s going to be a school.”

The 22-acre parcel, which is graded into three tiers and surrounded by luxury homes in Nellie Gail Ranch, is owned by the Saddleback Valley Unified School District, which has long planned to build an elementary school at the site. But the project was stalled when federal officials declared the parcel’s middle tier a wetland after water settled on it and cattails began to sprout.

Still determined to build what Saddleback Valley officials say is a much-needed grade school on the site, the district in March installed 200 yards of plastic pipe to divert water from the property.

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That plan, however, has been sabotaged by one or more vandals who have cut or drilled holes in the pipe about 10 times since it was installed, allowing the water to flow back onto the parcel, Storm said. In the most recent incident, which authorities said happened sometime between Friday afternoon and Monday morning, the pipe was pried apart at a joint.

So far, police have no suspects, Storm said.

“Our problem is to solve who’s doing the vandalism, but the vandalism is the result of the proposed use for the land,” he said. “Someone obviously is trying to stop the school.”

Saddleback Valley District planning specialist Mary Lou Smith said most residents in the Nellie Gail Ranch and neighboring Moulton Ranch communities favor construction of the school. Many parents are now busing their youngsters to Gates Elementary School in El Toro, about 5 miles away.

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In Moulton Ranch, where tricycles litter the lawns, children may be sprouting faster than the cattails across Pacific Park Drive, the street that separates the Nellie Gail and Moulton communities. Moulton Ranch resident Julie Majcher, who hopes to someday send her 4-year-old daughter to the proposed Nellie Gail school, said parents are frustrated that plans for the school have stalled.

“It’s getting very critical,” said Majcher, who considers it “ludicrous” that the graded shelf of land was named a wetlands by federal officials. “For them to have designated this site as a wetlands in the first place is a joke,” she said.

Some Nellie Gail residents, however, have maintained that the district could find a better location for a new school--in Moulton Ranch, for instance--and that the wetlands should be preserved.

Ken Keegan, a member of the school site location committee, said many of his neighbors in Nellie Gail are concerned about the additional traffic the school would generate. Instead, Keegan said, the property could serve as an outdoor classroom of sorts.

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“I guess my opinion is the same as the state’s, that the wetlands should be preserved for educational purposes,” he said.

Currently, however, the district still hopes to build a school on 10 acres of the land. The remaining land would be sold to finance the project, Smith said Wednesday.

“The majority of children who will attend that school already live here,” she said. “The majority of Nellie Gail (residents) want the school there very badly. We believe it is a minority that is actually sabotaging the line.”


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