In December 2003, the 4th District Court of Appeal dismissed the County of Orange’s appeal of a superior court ruling that blocked the construction of the controversial Rancho Potrero Leadership Academy (RPLA) project, a detention center to be located in Trabuco Canyon. The dismissal was part of a settlement ending a three-year fight over RPLA between the County and Saddleback Canyons Conservancy and Rural Canyons Conservation Fund, two organizations devoted to protecting the rural canyon areas adjacent to the Cleveland National Forest.
The challenged project involved two primary components: approval of a Public Facility Master Plan for a new 90-bed juvenile detention center and amendment of the Foothill/Trabuco Specific Plan (FTSP), which would have created an anomalous special district -- the "Joplin Boys Ranch District" -- for the explicit purpose of exempting the County-owned land from the FTSP's environmental resource protection provisions. The project also would have included construction of a new paved access road in the Trabuco Creek floodplain leading to the Cleveland National Forest.
The settlement affirms the August 2002 superior court ruling that the County violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and state planning and zoning law when it approved RPLA and the FTSP amendment, calling the latter “arbitrary, capricious, and … ordered set aside as a prejudicial abuse of the County’s discretion.” The superior court also found that the County violated CEQA and the FTSP when it approved and commenced work on various maintenance projects at the existing Joplin Youth Center that resulted in the unlawful clearing of several acres of critical habitat. The County was stopped only after the plaintiffs documented the habitat destruction with a model airplane fly-over and reported it to state and federal authorities.
The County was ordered to drop its approvals of the RPLA and the FTSP amendment. The $8.4 million grant from the State Board of Corrections, originally slated for the Trabuco Canyon site, but conditioned on compliance with state environmental law, has since been redirected for construction of a new youth facility at the Orange County Juvenile Hall Complex. Relocation to a site other than the pristine location adjacent to the national forest and Trabuco Creek had previously been declared impossible by County probation officials. Abiding by the superior court order, the County certified an Environmental Impact Report for the Joplin maintenance projects, and was ordered by state and federal resource agencies to remediate the destroyed habitat surrounding the Joplin Youth Center, plainly visible from miles away as a scar at the foothills of the Saddleback Mountains.
In addition, as part of a negotiated settlement, the County paid $230,000 in attorneys’ fees to the citizens’ groups, which were represented by attorney Andrew Lichtman, and attorneys Rachel Hooper and Ellison Folk of the San Francisco law firm Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger.