A Trabuco Canyon environmental group filed a lawsuit Thursday against the county's proposed 90-bed expansion at Joplin Youth Center, saying it violates state laws.
"We agree that something needs to be done to help with more beds for juveniles," said Richard Gomez, a spokesman for the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy. "But the law says to avoid significant effects where feasible."
The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento Superior Court by the Rural Canyons Conservation Fund and the Saddleback conservancy, alleges that the county created a special planning district "to bypass environmental protections" for the 90-bed Rancho Potrero Leadership Academy, which would house boys and girls at the existing Joplin youth camp.
It also alleges that a proposed paved road leading to the facility through Trabuco Creek could cause extensive environmental damage.
The expansion was approved by the Board of Supervisors in December after a tedious planning process that took about two years.
County Probation Department officials are confident that the planning process for the academy will survive a court challenge, said Thomas G. Wright, chief deputy probation officer.
"We expected it and we are prepared," he said. "We have an administrative record that is ready to go to court that will defend our proposal."
Canyon residents have fought long and hard against the proposed academy, arguing that the site is too environmentally sensitive. Located behind the small Trabuco Canyon community, Joplin is next to the Cleveland National Forest in brushland filled with wildlife.
The road proposal has been criticized by several public agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Fish and Game, because of the harm it could cause to the endangered southwestern arroyo toad and fish species, Gomez said.
"There are other places in the county to put such a facility," he said. "In fact, we suggested the [closed] El Toro [Marine base], where Cal State Fullerton recently opened satellite classes. If the county really has a need for more beds, they could move into El Toro on Monday while they sort things out."
The Probation Department, however, has been steadfast in saying the Joplin site is the most suitable. The agency is pushing to finish construction by a Dec. 31, 2003, deadline to avoid jeopardizing an $8.4-million grant from the state Board of Corrections.