James A. Musick Jail Facility Expansion Fight Goes On with Irvine Losing Latest Round

One of the City of Irvine's attempts to block expansion of the Irvine-adjacent James A. Musick Jail Facility has been rejected by the state's Fourth District Court of Appeal. Justices found the County of Orange's decision to apply for state funding for the expansion is not the kind of action that should trigger a review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which was the basis for Irvine's suit.

Justice Richard Aronson, writing for the appellate court, affirmed Orange County Superior Court Judge Steven L. Perk's denial of a writ of mandate sought by the city in City of Irvine v. County of Orange.

"The Application does not commit the County to proceed with the application process or the Musick Facility expansion," Aronson reasoned. "Moreover, the County did not seek to defer environmental review of the proposed project by conditioning its Application on future CEQA compliance."

It's just the latest round in the tug of war concerning Musick Jail, which the county is under pressure to expand due to court decisions seeking to relieve overcrowding. But the jail is on 100 acres of unincorporated, county-owned land next to Irvine, whose leaders believe the jail is plenty big enough.

It opened 40 years ago as an honor farm for 700 minimum-security inmates. The county says 1,250 inmates can be housed there now. The county first sought expansion in 1996 that would have added 864 beds, but after an environmental impact report (EIR) was certified, the city challenged it in trial court and won.

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The Court of Appeals reversed that ruling, finding the EIR to be CEQA-compliant. But the expansion plan languished due to lack of funding.

California Assembly Bill 900, which passed in 2007, made up to $1.2 billion available to counties for jail construction. Orange County sought $100 million to add more than 1,500 beds at Musick but later abandoned the project because the state required the county to pay for at least 25 percent of costs.

The Legislature later amended AB 900 to, among other things, limit to 10 percent the amount counties would have to kick in to projects, renewing Orange County's interest in expansion. The county then applied for $100 million to add 512 beds, leading to City of Irvine v. County of Orange.

State regulations governing AB 900 funding expressly allow environmental review to be delayed until after a conditional award of funds is approved and funds are received by a county, noted Justice Aronson, who also pointed out counties have a year to comply with CEQA after receiving the funds. In other words, the conditional awarding of state funds to the county is not a blanket commitment to expansion.

Email: mcoker@ocweekly.com. Twitter: @MatthewTCoker. Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!

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