A controversial plan to convert an Irvine dog kennel into a shelter for homeless people appeared to be doomed Tuesday after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development canceled a $496,000 grant to finance the project.
In a letter received late Monday by Irvine city officials, Assistant HUD Secretary Thomas Demery said the grant was being rescinded because the proposed site for the shelter was "environmentally unacceptable." The letter said the decision was based on "new information from the Department of Defense," but it did not specify what type of information it was.
The letter did, however, mention that the kennel, at the Irvine Animal Care Center on Sand Canyon Avenue, is only half a mile from the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and could be affected by jet noise. Opponents of the kennel conversion have expressed concern in the past about the 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.
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, on 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.
A spokesman for Badham in Washington said the congressman had forwarded a "number of inquiries" about the grant to HUD. But spokesman Paul Wilkinson said Badham had not recently "asked that HUD deny the grant."
He said the agency's decision was a "surprise" but added, "We're glad that HUD considered" the concerns of Irvine residents.
Officials at HUD and the Department of Defense could not be reached for comment.