As Great Park houses go up, nearby county jail plans big expansion
On a barren stretch of road on the edge of Irvine, a tasteful brown sign topped with a whimsical orange bicycle announces that a long-anticipated addition to the city is finally underway: the thousands of elegant new homes around the perimeter of the city’s planned Great Park.
The park itself will also soon grow, now that a plan to build 688 acres has been approved. And a long-awaited high school nearby is expected to open in 2016.
Just down the road, another long-stalled project is also finally underway — the addition of hundreds of jail beds to a county lockup once so rustic it was known as “The Farm.” Now it could become one of Orange County’s largest jails and eventually one of the largest in the nation.
Sheriff’s officials have promised that the jail will fit nicely next to the master-planned city.
It will look “just like a government or a public building, very nice landscaping.... It’s really going to look quite nice,” said Robert Beaver, director of the sheriff’s research and development division.
But in a city that prides itself as being known as America’s safety, the idea of a large jail — or a “multistory hardened mega-jail,” as Councilman Larry Agran describes it — isn’t sitting well.
This city filed two legal challenges since last year aimed at stopping the expansion and may file a third.
“When you’re talking about a vast, major metropolitan area with a lot of new development to take place in close proximity to this burgeoning jail, I just think that represents very poor public planning,” Agran said.
Even so, the long-planned expansion of James A. Musick jail is moving forward.
This year the county secured $100 million in state funding to add 512 beds at Musick. Now it is applying for an additional $80 million that would pay for 384 rehabilitation beds, bringing the total to more than 2,000 beds over the next seven years. Eventually, it could house more than 7,000 inmates.
The expansion will also change the nature of the compound, allowing it to house higher-risk inmates.
Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer said the county needs the added rehabilitation beds for prisoners who are being housed locally because of state prison realignment.
“These are our prisoners,” he said. “These are people who live in Orange County who committed crimes and live in Orange County and are going to be sent back to Orange County. Don’t we all have a responsibility to try and support that in order to reduce crime in our community?”
Opposition has centered on the facility’s closeness to the Great Park and its surrounding neighborhoods, but the larger jail was planned years before the city developed those plans.
In 1996, county leaders anticipated a growing inmate population and approved plans to expand the facility to house up to 7,500 inmates, but the project was delayed because of lack of funding.
Meanwhile, Irvine began drawing up plans to transform the closed El Toro military base into the 1,300-acre Great Park, which would be surrounded by pricey homes. When the housing market crashed, the Great Park homes were put on hold, suffering the same fate as the jail expansion.
But in September, the first models opened for viewing. Homes in Pavilion Park, as the first neighborhood is known, cost between $700,000 and $1.5 million. When it’s all built out, there will be 9,500 homes curled around the park. A high school that would accommodate the new families is set to open in 2016 about three-quarters of a mile from the jail, though the school district is also considering moving it within the boundaries of the Great Park.
“The Farm” currently holds about 1,250 minimum security inmates on nearly 100 acres. Many are housed in tents and temporary wooden modules that were never meant to remain more than a few months, Beaver said. About 300 of the inmates are immigration detainees for whom the federal government pays $118 a day per person.
The jail expansion might have continued to gather dust if not for prison overcrowding and the state’s realignment plan, which forced counties to take on thousands of additional inmates but also made millions of dollars in state funds available for local jails.
In a letter to the Board of Supervisors in October, Irvine Mayor Steven Choi wrote that the city “cannot and does not” support the proposed jail expansion.
“We are concerned that a more institutional facility, which houses higher-level offenders, is inconsistent with the surrounding land uses,” he wrote.
After years of opposition, the city of Lake Forest agreed late last year to drop its legal challenges after the county made several concessions — including limiting the number of inmates to 3,100 (though that could increase if the sheriff shows there is need or if there’s a state or federal mandate) and limiting types of inmates to minimum and medium security except in unusual circumstances.
So far, Irvine’s efforts to block the expansion have been unsuccessful. A petition filed by the city that would have forced the county to rescind the jail’s master plan was denied in October. A suit filed last year to force the county to abandon its application for state funds was denied this year. An appellate court upheld that decision.
This month a committee of the state’s Board of State and Community Corrections recommended approval of the county’s $80-million, 384-bed proposal.
Agran says he fears the jail will ultimately grow so large that it exceeds county need and is put into use to house federal detainees and inmates from other parts of California. But sheriff’s officials say its ultimate growth will depend on need and funding.
“Those are going to be decisions that are made way out in the future,” Beaver said.
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