A Kern County judge has abruptly halted a $335-million prison project in Delano, ruling that the state Department of Corrections must reconsider the potential environmental impact.
The decision, issued last week by Kern County Superior Court Judge Roger Randall, requires the state to reopen issues ranging from water use to effects on the financially strapped city's infrastructure.
Delano officials, who have lobbied for the 5,160-bed, maximum-security project, were disappointed.
"I've got a 30% unemployment rate, so I'm losing out on jobs, from the construction of the facility to permanent jobs when it's done," said Mayor Art Armendares, who works at a nearby prison in Wasco.
Armendares said the existing North Kern Prison, a processing center for inmates that is several miles west of the town's center, has provided about 250 jobs in Delano. A recent test to determine eligibility for office assistant jobs at the proposed facility drew about 1,000 applicants, he said.
Opponents Say Prison Unnecessary
Opponents, who have tagged the project a "social and environmental disaster," say they will use the court-ordered hiatus to bolster their contention that a fourth prison in the region will take more than it gives to the city of 38,800.
They note that the prison will require already scarce water, and that any population growth will further crowd Delano's schools and roads. More generally, opponents say inmate population growth is slowing, undermining the rationale for new facilities.
"We think this is an opportunity for the people of Delano, Kern County and the state as a whole to reconsider the need to spend $335 million on a 5,000-bed prison," said Craig Gilmore, a spokesman for the California Prison Moratorium Project, one of several anti-prison and environmental groups that sued to halt the project.
Such opponents of the state's two-decade campaign to build more prisons say the Corrections Department scaled back its forecast for population growth this year by 18,000 inmates.
Recent measures such as Proposition 36, which softens imprisonment requirements for drug offenders, is expected to stem inmate population growth even further, experts on both sides of the issue agree.
Nonetheless, the state has difficulties housing violent felons, said corrections spokeswoman Margot Bach.
"We're already overcrowded as is, and to put more violent inmates in closer proximity with other violent inmates will only create more violence," Bach said.
Anti-prison activists question that assertion, noting that Department of Corrections master plans seem to indicate the system can handle 20,000 more high-security inmates without running out of room by 2003.
Exactly what issues the state will have to reconsider, and how extensive the process will be, remain ambiguous. Neither side had seen the text of the judge's decision Monday.
Among the strictly environmental issues are ground water and waste water, both of which are touchy political issues in the San Joaquin Valley.
The Southern San Joaquin Municipal Utility District, which manages irrigation water in the Delano area, was incensed to find that until several months ago, it was not included in notifications about the state's environmental impact study.
"We were never included in any of their correspondence, any of their environmental impact process," said district General Manager William Carlisle.
Utility District Could Lose Thousands
The utility district stands to lose $29,000 in fees levied on the 640 agricultural acres the state would use for the facility, forcing it to try to spread the cost of its water and infrastructure among fewer users on less acreage, Carlisle said.
"We don't like to see agricultural land taken out of production, particularly not for the first, or second, or third, but the fourth prison," Carlisle said. "We also don't like to see the job losses [in agriculture]. I don't care what they say about it, but you don't take an agricultural worker and make him a prison worker."
Though the city went on record as favoring the facility, Armendares and others worry about the state's decision not to help fund an expansion of Delano's overtaxed waste-water treatment facility, deciding instead to build its own.
Armendares said the city hopes to reopen negotiations on its treatment plant, which will prove to be a more difficult financial prospect without the state as client and partner.