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Irvine Council Debates El Toro Park, Jail

Incoming Mayor Larry Agran and new council members Chris Mears, Beth Krom campaigned for green space at Marine base, no expansion at Musick.


In calculated moves, a newly seated majority on the Irvine City Council on Tuesday resurrected planning for a city park at the closed El Toro Marine base and, separately, debated whether to oppose expansion of a jail that sits at the city's border.

Incoming Mayor Larry Agran and new council members Chris Mears and Beth Krom had promised during their campaigns to reverse earlier council approvals to shift park funding to the state and to allow a limited expansion of the James A. Musick Branch Jail.

Agran said the park, which would cover most of the 4,700-acre base, should be designed and managed by the city of Irvine, based on its history as "the most successful master-planned community in America."

Opponents of building a commercial airport at El Toro, the former Marine base that closed in mid-1999, then can use the city's "great park" plan in a March 2002 ballot measure, he said Tuesday, asking voters to overturn a 1994 vote that required an airport to be built at the base.

"The creation of a great metropolitan park to fill the El Toro site can be of great benefit to the entire county," said Agran, the city's elected mayor from 1988 to 1990.

Although Irvine continues its battle to thwart an airport at El Toro, council action on the Musick jail could spark a more immediate reaction.

A week ago, the Lake Forest City Council voted unanimously to accept a compromise plan for Musick, arguing that it was better to accept limited growth than the full-blown project sought by county supervisors. A majority of supervisors signed off on the deal a day later--but said it would be withdrawn unless Irvine approved it.

The Irvine council spent hours late Tuesday arguing the merits of the compromise. Mears wanted the council to appoint a committee that would work in the next four months to find a remote spot for a new jail where Musick could be moved.

Years of effort to find such a site, most recently by South County cities, fell apart after no suitable spot could be found. Lake Forest officials hoped Irvine would approve the compromise and put pressure on the county to find another jail site farther from homes and businesses. Lake Forest homes are within 700 feet of the Musick jail.

Pressure for Irvine to ink the deal increased Friday after an appellate court cleared the way for the county to build as many as 7,968 beds at Musick. There are 1,200 beds now at the branch jail; the compromise would allow up to 4,400 beds over the next 15 years.

The county's expansion plans for Musick were approved by supervisors before the passage in March of Measure F, which called for two-thirds of voters countywide to agree before the county could build new airport projects, large jails near homes and hazardous waste landfills. A judge threw out Measure F earlier this month as unconstitutional and a violation of state law.

Mears said supervisors would be thwarting the will of voters countywide if they forged ahead with a full Musick expansion. Measure F passed with 67% of the vote.

He said city officials will work with the Irvine Co., which owns most of the county's remaining undeveloped land, to find a remote site. Company officials in the past have declined to comment on their involvement in the search.

A future jail also would not need to be as large as sought by county planners, Mears said. The county now houses about 750 maximum-security prisoners, he said, and as many as 1,152 maximum-security prisoners can be housed at the Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange.

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