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Orange County

Lack of Permits Halts Grading at Juvenile Camp

Environment: Trabuco Canyon residents had contended that the work jeopardized sensitive habitat. The county belatedly agreed.

April 30, 2002|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Trabuco Canyon residents were jubilant Monday after the county ordered grading halted at a youth detention camp after learning that probation officials had bulldozed at least four acres of oaks and coastal sage without state and federal permits.

"We're very pleased," said Richard Gomez, a spokesman for the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy. "The work order stopped the destruction of the environment. But we don't know what will happen next."

County planners took action Friday on complaints by residents over earth movers working at the Joplin Youth Center in Trabuco Canyon.

Probation Department officials initially had said they had sufficient permits from the county to grade a slope to reinforce a sewage pond on the property.

However, canyon residents insisted the area was potential habitat for endangered or threatened species and that any construction or grading would require permits from the state Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They also called in a biologist to support their contention.

"Once it was determined that the Probation Department did not have state and federal permits, we issued a stop-work order," said Brian Murphy, a planning services spokesman.

Biologist Robb Hamilton, who was hired by residents to survey the area, said it contains coastal sage scrub, black and white sage, and laurel sumac, among other vegetation important for local wildlife.

"I judged this habitat to be potentially suitable for nesting by the federally threatened coastal California gnatcatcher," Hamilton said.

Typically, when such projects are planned in an environmentally sensitive area, the wildlife service is called in, surveys are conducted, and an assessment is completed before grading begins.

In this case, said Ken Corey, the federal agency's division chief for Orange and Los Angeles counties, "The habitat was cleared and we didn't know anything about the area prior to the grading."

Corey said that the habitat cleared by the county "was potentially that of the threatened California gnatcatcher" and authorization was needed before any work could proceed.

Watchful residents were already fighting construction of the Rancho Potrero Leadership Academy, a 90-bed coeducational facility planned next to Joplin's 64-bed youth camp, and have been on the lookout for any development in the area.

When grading began April 16 at Joplin, residents complained to the Probation Department. They were told that the department had been issued a permit by county planning.

At the time, residents insisted the grading was destroying oaks and sensitive vegetation, but the work continued.

The order to stop grading was issued eight days later by county Planning and Development Services Department, planning spokesman Murphy said. "We did have permits," he said, "but there was a miscommunication between us and Probation."

Representatives from the county will meet with state and federal wildlife agencies to determine whether mitigation measures are necessary and what steps, if any, should be taken.

Canyon residents have sued the Probation Department, alleging that the project violates state environmental guidelines.

The department denies the allegations, and insists that Joplin and Juvenile Hall are overcrowded and won't meet the county's projected need.

Gomez said canyon residents believe the grading wasn't really for a sewage pond, but the beginning of construction for the academy--an allegation that Probation Department officials denied.

Gomez said residents will remain vigilant.

"A week ago they told us 'Everything's fine,'" he said. "But at least they now know that when we find out something is going on out there, we're not just crying wolf."

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