A controversial plan to convert an Irvine dog kennel into a shelter for homeless people appeared to be doomed Tuesday after federal officials canceled a $496,000 grant to finance the project.
In a letter received Monday by Irvine city officials, Thomas Demery, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said the grant was being rescinded because the proposed site for the shelter was "environmentally unacceptable."
The letter left the door open for an alternate site, but city officials said there were no other feasible sites.
The letter said the decision was based on "new information from the Department of Defense" about noise from jets passing overhead from nearby El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
Mile From Base
Based on information supplied HUD by Marine officials at El Toro, the shelter is squarely in the path of one of the base's busiest runways. The proposed shelter in the 15000 block of Sand Canyon Avenue would be less than a mile from the air base.
In the past, the military has objected to any new construction in the area because of its proximity to the heavily used base.
In a memo to HUD, Marine Col. J. M. Wagner said families housed at the shelter would experience frequent "interference . . . because of the high noise levels" from base aircraft.
Opponents of the kennel conversion have expressed concern about jet noise and how it might affect shelter residents.
Without the HUD grant, city officials say, it is unlikely that the plan to remodel the vacant kennel into a 50-bed shelter for homeless Irvine families can be carried out. The bulk of the conversion and operating costs for the shelter's first five years were to come from the grant, which HUD awarded to the city in early October.
Assistant City Manager Paul Brady Jr. said the city cannot afford to step in and finance the project on its own.
City officials also learned in Demery's letter that a second grant application for nearly $700,000 to purchase modular units to be located near the converted kennel at the Irvine Animal Care Center also has been rejected because of the perceived noise threat from jets at that site. The city had not been awarded that money.
But the possibility that a homeless shelter could be built elsewhere remains. In his letter, Demery told Irvine officials that they still may receive the $496,000 grant if they find an acceptable alternative site in the city.
Mayor Larry Agran said the matter will be considered at the City Council's next meeting, Dec. 15.
Agran, the leading advocate of the project, called the noise issue "ridiculous." A 100-room hotel opened recently down the street from the animal shelter, he said, and the city's first hospital is being built less than 1 1/2 miles away.
"The city over the years has granted approval for commercial, industrial and institutional development in precisely this area," Agran said. "In all instances the city complied with local, state and federal law."
Agran said HUD's change of heart about the grant "smells of outside political interference." He said Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach) had intervened on behalf of project opponents in previous efforts to persuade HUD to cancel the grant.
"I can only presume that political pressure has prompted this bizarre and perhaps illegal effort by HUD to withdraw the grant," Agran said.
In Washington, Badham denied late Tuesday that he was a part of any "behind-the-scenes deal" to cancel the grant. "I resent that accusation," he said, adding that he had not heard about HUD's decision until Tuesday.
'What Was Proper'
Badham, whose 40th District includes Irvine, said he simply forwarded a number of concerns about the proposal to HUD and asked the agency to review its decision. "I did what is proper for an elected representative," he said.
However, Badham added that if he were an Irvine resident, "I would have been outraged . . . that the City of Irvine, one of the wealthiest cities in the country, was asking for a $500,000 grant at a time this nation is facing a major budget crunch."
Councilman C. David Baker, who opposed the kennel conversion with Councilwoman Sally Anne Miller, said Sen. Pete Wilson (R-California) also played a role in persuading HUD to deny Irvine the grant, but it was unclear late Tuesday to what degree. Attempts to reach Wilson Tuesday night were unsuccessful.
Baker said he had "mixed emotions" about HUD's action. He said converting the kennel was a "bad idea when proposed last summer and it's still a bad idea now." And he said he believes that Irvine Temporary Housing, the nonprofit city group that supported the project and would have operated the shelter, has been hurt by the divisive debate surrounding the proposal, which has attracted national attention.
"It is tragic that ITH has suffered some apparent damage from the dog shelter issue," said Baker, referring to the group's recent financial troubles. ITH has set a self-imposed Dec. 15 deadline to raise $8,000 or consider closing its doors.
Baker said the city should now push to expand ITH's current program of placing homeless families in five apartments scattered around the city.
Officials at HUD could not be reached for comment.
Experts believe that up to 30 families may be homeless every night in Irvine. A survey of churches and shelters undertaken by a city task force found that nearly 400 men, women and children from Irvine turned up at shelters in the county during the first six months of this year.
Agran has pushed for a central shelter so the city "can do its fair share" to ease the homeless crunch in Orange County.
The plan grew into a controversial issue and was approved by the City Council on a 3-2 vote in October.