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Firm Reaps Profit From Desolate Prison Site : Real estate: Company, aided by former corrections official, bought pesticide-tainted land near Coalinga for $374 an acre and sold it to state for $3,500 an acre. Business partner calls deal a fair one.

THE PRICE OF PUNISHMENT. The Booming Business of Running California's Prisons. One in a series

October 18, 1994|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COALINGA, Calif. — When Pleasant Valley State Prison opens next month, inmates won't find much pleasant about California's newest prison.

It's hot in the summer, chilly in the winter. Wind causes blinding dust storms. Nearby faults periodically cause strong earthquakes. For this expanse of flat, dry land, California paid a premium--$2.183 million--or $3,500 an acre.

By the time the land was cleaned of pesticides and other toxins, the state ended up spending more than $3 million--the equivalent of more than $5,000 an acre. Farmland in the area sells for maybe $2,000 an acre.

The Pleasant Valley land deal is one of several in which California paid large sums to rural landowners for property where it builds prisons. Sellers include major farming corporations, a timber company, a bank and wealthy business people. Many are campaign donors.

Starting in 1987, the Department of Corrections, working with townsfolk, began looking for suitable land near Coalinga. By 1990, it had homed in on a 623-acre site owned by a partnership called Triple D Farms.

To help consummate the deal, Triple D hired Rodney Blonien, the former undersecretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency. Don Devine, a partner in Triple D, said he and his partners selected Blonien because he "knew his way around and we didn't know our way around."

Records show that Triple D Farms bought the land as part of a 5,000-acre purchase from Bank of America. The price was $1.875 million, or $374 per acre. "When we bought the land, we had no idea (that a prison would go in)," Devine said.

On April 24, 1990, two weeks after Triple D's purchase was recorded, the Corrections Department convened a hearing in Coalinga, one focus of which was where the prison would be built.

Blonien told the hearing that his clients' "very clear and distinct wish" was that the state would place the prison on their land, a transcript shows.

In August, 1990, the state Department of Real Estate appraised the property, concluding that Triple D got an exceptional deal when it bought the 5,000 acres. It placed the worth of the 623-acre portion at $2,000 an acre, plus $462,000 for buildings on the property.

Meanwhile, the state commissioned an environmental assessment of Triple D's land. The assessment revealed that cleanup of pesticides and other toxics on the land would cost $2 million.

Based on that report, the state considered looking elsewhere. But the search ended after a 1991 meeting attended by prison officials, Blonien and Assemblyman Jim Costa (D-Fresno), notes of the meeting show.

Costa, one of two co-authors of the "three strikes" legislation, has six prisons in his district, including Pleasant Valley. The meeting notes show that Costa brought up several problems with moving, and that he pointed to a second consultant's estimate that the cleanup of Triple D's land would cost only about a third as much as projected.

Triple D's partners have contributed to Costa's campaigns, giving him $3,000 last year, reports show.

In an interview, Devine called the final sale price a fair one. He also said Costa is a good legislator and a friend, who would have helped him regardless of whether he had received donations.

In an interview, Costa said he convened the meeting to urge corrections officials to resolve the problem, not to force them into choosing the Triple D site. He added that he has gotten involved in several other prison issues in his district, and said donations from Triple D partners had "absolutely" nothing to do with his decision to intervene.

"If a constituent of mine has a problem, we try to help out. That's my job," Costa said.

The consultant who proposed--and ended up doing--the $775,000 cleanup was Keith Scrivner, a former mayor of Coalinga who owns an engineering and environmental firm.

Scrivner, who left office as mayor in October, 1990, said he received the work in 1991 because he and Triple D partners were friends, and he could do the job for less than other contractors.

"I happened to be in the right place and in the right business when this came along," Scrivner said.

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