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Officials break ground on new O.C. animal shelter, replacing old one built during WWII

Guests sit below a rendering of the proposed new Orange County Animal Care Shelter at a groundbreaking ceremony on the former Tustin Marine Corps Air Station.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

After decades of accusations that Orange County’s aging animal shelter posed a hazard to humans and its non-human residents, officials gathered Friday to break ground for a new facility on 10 acres of land at the former Tustin Marine Corps Air Station.

Orange County leaders were joined by pet rescue supporters who cheered as spades dug into fresh dirt for the new Orange County Animal Care Shelter, expected to be completed by the end of 2017.

The main building of the current shelter — which opened 75 years ago — is in “utter disrepair,” creating structural and sanitation dangers for both humans and critters, according to a 2015 grand jury report that criticized O.C. leaders for paralysis in finding a replacement.

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The World War II-era facility was intended to serve the needs of a much smaller population and far fewer animals than the more than 30,000 entering its doors annually today.

“The numbers and the need are so huge — it’s way past time to make a change, and this is as central of a location as we can find,” said Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson.

All counties in California with more than 500,000 people have at least two animal shelters — except Orange County, the grand jury found.

“There was just never the will and leadership from previous boards to make it happen,” said Supervisor Lisa Bartlett.

Plans call for the new space to be adorned with peppermint trees and California fan palms. It will be a place “where parents will bring their families on the weekends and where everyone will leave learning something valuable about animals,” Bartlett said.

County officials set aside $5 million in 1995 to build the shelter, but delays by the Department of the Navy in transferring the land to Orange County and trouble getting an environmental hazard clearance stymied the project, according to Scott Mayer, the county’s chief real estate officer.

The county finally brokered a land swap earlier this year, gaining a portion of the former air station owned by the South Orange County Community College District to build on and approving up to $35 million for construction, roadway improvements and utilities. County officials agreed to pay $5 million of that cost, with funding help from 14 partner cities that use shelter services.

Those cities include: Anaheim, Brea, Cypress, Fountain Valley, Fullerton, Huntington Beach, Lake Forest, Orange, Placentia, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Ana, Tustin, Villa Park, Yorba Linda and unincorporated areas.

On hand Friday to celebrate were Kane the collie and Breck the Samoyed, both therapy dogs, and their owners. Shelter director Jennifer Hawkins gave a preview of what will emerge in the new space, including: public information classrooms; indoor and outdoor kennels in climate-controlled buildings with sound dampening systems to reduce stress; multiple dog exercise areas; two group-cat housing areas, including “catios” — outdoor patios where multiple felines can stay in good weather; and three surgical suites along with pre-op and post-op recovery rooms and separate exam areas for dogs and cats.

Diane Forsyth and Lisa Lani, longtime volunteers for German Shepherd Rescue of Orange County, said pet lovers also suggested adding grooming stations. “If the dogs get cleaned up and they look good, that increases their chances of adoption; I can’t wait to see it,” Lani said.

“The new building sounds grand, but what we appreciate most is the attitude change,” Forsyth added. “For a long time, the biggest frustration is we didn’t see a collaboration between citizens and government to help the animals. We need understanding, we need to move beyond protests to solutions.”

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who represents the district where the shelter will open, said “it’s what we will do inside the building — how we treat the animals and how we try to find each of them a home — that’s most important.”

Animal activist Rose Tingle of Laguna Woods, said “this is a momentous day,” adding, “People thought it would never happen and I’m grateful it did.”

Now, she said, supporters need to move on to the next goal: creating an animal welfare commission. “With the right space, we should get the right group together to work on common issues.”

anh.do@latimes.com

Twitter: @newsterrier

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