COUNTY MUST PAY $350,000 IN YOUTH PRISON CASE
Legal Expenses Awarded in Successful Suit Against Prison Expansion
A San Diego Superior Court judge has awarded the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy and RCCF $353,108 in legal costs and attorney fees after the groups prevailed last August in their lawsuit to set aside the county's December 2001 approval of the Rancho Potrero Leadership Academy (RPLA), a proposed 90-bed youth prison in upper Trabuco Canyon and 2.7-mile asphalt access road up Arroyo Trabuco.
The ruling comes as good news for some Trabuco landowners in the path of the access road targeted for county condemnation proceedings.
Judge Lisa Guy-Schall ruled that the approval violated the governing Foothill Trabuco Specific Plan by illegally carving out an "exemption zone" freeing RPLA and other area correctional facilities from restrictions on grading, oak-tree cutting, and wildlife corridors that apply to all other development projects in Trabuco Canyon.
The judge also invalidated the environmental impact report (EIR), finding that it should have covered massive clearing and grading activities secretly undertaken by the county during the pendency of the lawsuit. The plaintiffs discovered and photographed the covert bulldozing, and got it shut down, but not before it had left grading scars visible from 10 miles away and destroyed several acres of oak woodland and coastal sage scrub, critical habitat for the California Gnatcatcher and other species threatened with extinction. County lawyers and probation officials argued that the massive grading and clearing were "routine maintenance activities" for the existing 64-bed Joplin detention facility, located on the same site, and unrelated to the RPLA, that had been approved on the consent calendar of the board of supervisors a year earlier. But Judge Guy-Schall said that the RPLA and "maintenance" clearing should have been analyzed together in a single, publicly reviewed EIR so that the full environmental effect of the combined activities could be assessed.
To defend its illegal approval, which was backed by the planning staff and commission, the county hired a major law firm whose fees, combined with the $350,000 awarded to plaintiffs, may push the total taxpayer bill to over $1 million. The county's lawyers have appealed Guy-Schall's rulings even though the project has already been relocated from Trabuco Canyon to Orange.
"I feel vindicated by the ruling," said Gloria Sefton, who, along with fellow Trabuco resident Rich Gomez, founded the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, "but I'm sickened by the thought of what we've been through in the effort to simply protect the environment under California environmental laws that our county should be obeying."
Commentary--Bad Planning Costs Everyone
Judy Guy-Schall's ruling simply reiterated exactly what the pubic opponents of this project told the Orange County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors. Unfortunately, their words were ignored, as serious planning once again gave way to the sham this county is widely know for: policy makers--in this case county supervisors--deciding in advance what they want, and directing their legal and planning staffs to go through the required review and public hearing processes, but to do whatever it takes to insure that these processes lead to the desired result. Zealous staff members pump out thinly-veiled advocacy papers disguised as objective reports. Members of the public who object to the project become the enemy, to be hoodwinked and out-maneuvered through elaborate backroom strategies. Public hearings are carefully choreographed to insure that opponents' testimony is strictly limited, proponents always get the final word, and the necessary testimony is elicited to set a record favoring approval. To discourage appeals, exorbitant appeal fees are established that must be paid to later obtain access to the courts, which is in turn discouraged through over-pricing the "certified" public records required as evidence. In this case, though, a few courageous individuals successfully navigated their way through the gamut, and, nearly two years later, have finally been vindicated.
But, as Gloria Sefton points out, the overall result is less than satisfying. Beyond the financial and emotional strain borne by her and other civic-minded persons, plus the $1-million hit on the public coffers--and one can well imagine better uses for that money--there's the depressing fact that the public has been deprived, at least for the present, of whatever benefit the project might have yielded. Had the public's concerns and criticisms been heeded, and not summarily blown off, perhaps the project could have been modified or relocated (as it ultimately was) and moved ahead without the expense, time-consuming appeals and court battles. And there's the fact that the local government players have not been held accountable. (What private business would tolerate a million-dollar screwup by employees, especially after they had been thoroughly warned of the potential consequences of their actions?) No, they are all "back on the street," poised to do it over again the next time.
Unfortunately, until enlightened leadership comes to local government and recognizes the vicious cycle that bad planning represents, the public has no alternative but to play the game.