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Orange County

She's Making a Little Noise to Protect Her Peace

Environment: Trabuco Canyon mother turns activist to fight plans to expand a juvenile center.

January 13, 2002|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To hear Shelly Black describe her Trabuco Canyon community, with its flowing mountain streams, 200-year-old oaks and miles of hiking trails, it's easy to see why she becomes emotional.

"We see deer and coyotes all the time up here. There's just so much wildlife that it's pretty incredible," said Black of her neighborhood nestled near the foothills of the Cleveland National Forest.

Which is why the mere mention of plans to build a 90-bed juvenile detention center behind her home causes the 38-year-old mother-turned-activist to condemn county government for threatening to spoil her private paradise.

"We're portrayed as NIMBYs, that we don't care about juveniles, but we do believe there is a need for more juvenile beds," she said. "But there are other areas in the county to build a juvenile facility without destroying the environment."

For more than two years, Black has been one of the community leaders rallying opposition to the proposed $17-million Rancho Potrero Leadership Academy in the small community, where a general store is the commercial hub.

This isn't something I would normally do," Black said. "But if you want to have a rural lifestyle, kind of off the grid, you got to fight for it. Nobody wants to let you have that."

Last week, the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, which includes Trabuco residents, sued to stop construction of the academy, which was approved by county supervisors last month.

The county probation department plans to build the academy on the grounds of the Joplin youth center, a 64-bed treatment camp for boys that covers 338 acres.

Probation officials say existing facilities such as Joplin and Juvenile Hall in Orange are overcrowded and won't be able to meet the projected need in coming years.

They estimate they will need 726 "secure" beds in a locked, guarded facility such as juvenile hall by 2005; it has 538 now. They say they will need 605 "nonsecure" beds, such as those at Joplin, by 2005. They have only 314 there now.

County officials say a camp setting helps build character in nonviolent offenders by removing them from the influence of gangs and putting them in a wilderness environment. They add that if they are forced to delay construction, they will miss a 2003 deadline set by the state Board of Corrections, which is providing $8.4 million for the project.

Through the years since Joplin opened in 1956, residents have learned to coexist with its unique problems, including runaways.

But when plans called for dozens of heavy construction trucks rumbling up narrow Rose Canyon Road, posing potential traffic hazards for the children who frequently ride horses through the heart of the mountain community, residents' frustration turned to action.

They also turned to Black, a longtime canyon resident who has motivated others to attend hearings and speak out.

"Shelly was one of those residents with an incredible passion," fellow community leader Gloria Sefton said. "She's wonderful at organizing and getting people to attend things, especially if we've called a last-minute town hall meeting."

Richard Gomez, a spokesman for the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, said part of Black's strength is that she's not afraid to confront people, including elected officials.

When county supervisors approved the project, Black zeroed in on Supervisor Todd Spitzer, whose district includes Trabuco Canyon. She called the project, "Spitzer's Scheme," and accused him of compromising "our environment," family safety and fiscal responsibility.

Spitzer has said he told residents he agreed that trucks would pose a hazard. As a result, the Probation Department will build a road to handle construction trucks and future academy traffic.

As proposed, the new road would cross private land and require the county to pay for the land and construction, which added $5 million to the original $12-million project.

While residents such as Black criticize the project as the "nation's most expensive" juvenile facility--costing $250,000 a bed--probation officials contend the figure is $133,000 per bed.

The project became more controversial when county planners chose to create the Joplin Boys Ranch District as a planning mechanism.

The conservancy's lawsuit alleges that the county created the special district to circumvent environmental laws that would make it more difficult to cut down 200-year-old oaks and pave a road through Trabuco Creek. Both probation and county planning officials deny that charge.

"This doesn't bypass the law, this complies with it," said Brian Murphy, a spokesman for the county planning department. "Zoning laws allow for [districts] for public purposes, and this is a project to serve the entire county."

Because of the lawsuit, residents have shifted their focus to raising funds for legal costs. Already, $35,000 has been raised, mostly from individuals, Gomez said.

As for Black, Gomez said her leadership role also has changed. "Initially, Shelly was trying to do it all, but now we're more organized."

Committees have been set up for fund-raising, public relations, accounting and legal issues, he said.

"We've also learned to delegate so we can focus on being effective," he said.

Black, who dropped out of Laguna Hills High School in 10th grade, said her activism has been on-the-job, "real-life" training.

Many county officials begrudgingly paid her and other community leaders respect.

"They've been very organized," said Thomas G. Wright, chief deputy probation officer. "They've been good adversaries, though not well-informed at times. But I can appreciate their passion."

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