As the Great Park and thousands of surrounding homes develop in Irvine, the county’s bursting jail system will likely also be breaking ground next door.
The tensions between law enforcement demands and suburbanization played out at the County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, when the board unanimously approved another expansion of the James A. Musick jail.
Sheriff’s Department officials will keep building out the 100 acres of former farmland if the state grants $80 million in construction funds and the county can dodge legal challenges. Today, Musick houses only minimum-security inmates, so the planned addition of medium-security offenders and two-thirds more beds has rankled some neighbors.
County leaders attempted to ease concerns Tuesday while saying they need the beds to accommodate state prisoners and other inmate growth.
The second phase of proposed Musick construction calls for a 384-bed building with treatment rooms and classrooms; state funding would require the county to implement drug rehabilitation and other therapy programs.
Musick has 1,322 beds. Combined with another expansion approved last year, it would reach 2,218.
“We have to be very clear, this vote today is only for rehab beds,” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who represents the area. “I want to stamp out any rumors that this is approving a maximum-security 7,500-bed” facility.
Spitzer was trying to quell opposition from Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran, who contends the county is marching toward a “mega-jail” – Agran’s description of a 1998 county plan for about that many inmates.
City officials have opposed jail expansion and raised it as a reason to relocate a planned high school.
Last month, they opened a 30-acre portion of the nearby Great Park, with sports fields, a reflecting pond and mile-long fitness trail.
But not many residents live nearby to complain – yet.
That may change soon. Homebuilder FivePoint Communities wants to sell some 9,500 homes north and east of the Orange County Great Park. The developer recently debuted its first group of homes, which cost as much as $1.5 million.
Homebuyers skittish about an expanding jail could hurt sales in the short term, at least one expert said.
“You’ll get some people who will balk,” said Steven Thomas, the director of Irvine-based Reports on Housing. He added it will depend on how much attention the jail issue receives. There also will certainly be some people who won’t care, Thomas said.
Irvine Mayor Steven Choi read the supervisors a statement Tuesday, essentially arguing that expansion would require an additional environmental study; last year his city sued the county on those grounds.
“It will change the fundamental character of that facility,” Choi said.
The Irvine lawsuit came a month after supervisors accepted a separate $100 million state award for 512 new beds at Musick. Then, as now, they pointed to the swelling inmate rolls.
“Irvine is contributing to the stream of people who commit crimes in our county,” Spitzer said Tuesday. “We have to have a place to put those people.”
The first expansion phase at Musick is set to begin construction in May 2016. This latest construction, funded through state bonds, would begin as early as summer 2017.
PRESSURES TO EXPAND
Orange County jails have neared capacity four times this year, Sheriff’s officials have said. The countywide inmate population has been steadily climbing since 2011, when the state gave counties responsibility for housing and supervising thousands of state prisoners.
“We’re at risk of the early release of low-level offenders,” Spitzer said.
The new inmates have also limited the beds the county can rent to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Marshals Service. Those contracts bring the county about $30 million annually. Spitzer sought to counter some allegations that the county is merely adding beds for new revenue.
“I just want to be sure these beds don’t go to ICE at all,” he told Assistant Sheriff Lee Trujillo, who confirmed ICE detainees were ineligible, although the construction could free other beds.
LAKE FOREST COMPROMISES
Irvine had been joined by neighboring Lake Forest in its legal efforts until late last year, when that city brokered a deal with the Sheriff’s Department.
Lake Forest officials agreed they wouldn’t sue again as long as the county agreed to cap the number of inmates at the jail at 3,100, notify the city of happenings at the jail, and ensure any new buildings would be no taller than 50 feet.
Maximum-security inmates, if they happen to end up at the jail, would not be allowed to stay longer than a week.
Register staff writers Sarah de Crescenzo, Jordan Graham, Salvador Hernandez, Lauren Jow and Kimberly Pierceall contributed to this report.
By MIKE REICHER / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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