Our View | CEQA Bomb and a Reprieve

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By The Signal Editorial Board

Santa Clarita dropped a CEQA bomb on L.A. County’s plans to ship all of its violent youth offenders to Saugus — effectively buying the community a brief reprieve while the county figures out how to respond.

We should use the reprieve wisely. There is opposition to mobilize, and questions to put on the table, and demands for answers to be made.

Here’s what transpired this past week: The county Board of Supervisors was set Tuesday to consider a motion by Supervisors Holly Mitchell and Sheila Kuehl to expedite a plan to turn Camp Joseph Scott or Camp Kenyon Scudder into a rehabilitation camp with a “small group model environment” for the violent youth offenders who, until now, would have been kept in state custody.

But the state has passed the buck to California’s counties, enacting legislation last year to close down the state’s youth incarceration facilities. 

A state-mandated committee, the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council’s Community Advisory Committee, was tasked with finding a new home for the violent youth offenders, some of whom are as old as 25 because they committed their murders, armed robberies, rapes, etc., when they were under 18.

The committee, stacked primarily with “progressive” voices, none of whom represent the Santa Clarita Valley, quickly zeroed in on the two camps in Saugus, without seeking any community input or even alerting the city of Santa Clarita that the camps, designed for non-violent offenders, would be converted to house the county’s youths who committed the most heinous crimes.

As the plan went, the violent offenders would be housed temporarily at Campus Kilpatrick, in Malibu — in Kuehl’s district — until Scudder or Scott received the facility modifications they’d need to house the new violent offenders. 

The plan was originally scheduled to go before the Board of Supervisors in October — but apparently that’s not soon enough for Kuehl and Mitchell, who introduced a motion on this past Tuesday’s board agenda to immediately begin taking steps to prepare Scudder or Scott to house its new residents with violent histories.

The city of Santa Clarita, which has objected to basically being ignored and kept in the dark by the county and the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council through the entire process, prepared a pair of letters objecting to the motion. 

The letters — one each from the Santa Clarita City Council and City Attorney Joe Montes — urged the Board of Supervisors to table the item until the subcommittee conducts a comprehensive assessment of the facilities, including a proper land use and environmental review, dictated by the California Environmental Quality Act, as well as consultation with local officials and engagement and meetings with Santa Clarita residents. 

It was those letters that contained the CEQA bomb, saying there are significant environmental issues with the plan, such as the facilities’ location in both a high-risk flood and fire area, along with their proximity to surrounding communities, including the 375-unit residential project recently approved for construction approximately 700 feet from the facilities. 

Montes pointed out that these and other factors render the Scott/Scudder plan subject to CEQA.

Kudos go to the city for laying out the arguments in a cogent, effective way. It was a brilliant idea.

The city delivered the letters to the county on Monday. On Tuesday, without citing a reason, the Mitchell/Kuehl motion was delayed for two weeks — presumably so county staff can review the city’s challenges and figure out how to respond.

Reading between the lines: The county either needs to conduct a full CEQA review, or risk fending off a CEQA lawsuit from the city. 

Both options are time-consuming, and of course Kuehl wants those violent offenders to spend as little time in Malibu as possible.

Which brings us back to Malibu. Why not Malibu? Or, any of several other options throughout the county that would, at least on the surface, appear more suitable than Camps Scott and Scudder — not only the camp in Malibu but also existing facilities in several other parts of the county, including Sylmar and the Antelope Valley. Or, as we’ve suggested, the county’s property at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, which, as we’ve noted, is also in our back yard, but would pose far fewer concerns for community safety, traffic and property value degradation.

Neither Mitchell’s nor Kuehl’s offices have responded to our reporters’ requests for comment, so we asked the office of our own Supervisor Kathryn Barger. 

We thank Barger for saying all the right things and sticking up for the community she represents, calling on her board colleagues to engage the community and hear Santa Claritans’ concerns before moving forward. We trust that Barger is working equally hard on the issue behind the scenes. This issue is of major importance to her constituents here in Santa Clarita. 

When we asked Barger’s office, “Why not Campus Kilpatrick?” the response was that county officials have security concerns with the way the campus is laid out in the mountains of Malibu,  and there is a potential capacity issue once the county does accept all of the Department of Juvenile Justice youth currently in state custody.

And, we were told, Kilpatrick doesn’t have a “Hope Center,” which is a place designed for youth to cool down for short periods of time, rather than be placed in solitary confinement, which is part of the programming plan for this population.

But all of that doesn’t add up. There are grave security concerns about Scott and Scudder, too, and Kuehl and Mitchell seem all too willing to blow right past those concerns with nary a local public hearing or site visit.

And the lack of a “Hope Center”? Come on. That can’t be a very big mountain to climb.

Then there’s the comparison between the existing facilities at Kilpatrick vs. Scott and Scudder. The two Saugus camps date back to the 1950s and, according to the Sheriff’s Department, would need major renovations to house the violent youth offender population. 

In contrast, Campus Kilpatrick just a few years ago underwent a $48 million renovation to transform it into the very kind of group-rehabilitative camp that officials say they want in Saugus. It’s beautiful. You can see video of it here: probation.lacounty.gov/campus-kilpatrick.

Seeing that video, it’s hard not to wonder whether Kilpatrick, the Probation Department’s $48 million crown jewel, isn’t actually better suited than both Camp Scott and Camp Scudder. Perhaps the non-violent offenders should be relocated out of Kilpatrick to make room for the violent ones coming out of state custody to go to Kilpatrick.

These are all questions to be asked and answered, and for now we have a two-week reprieve. But when the Board of Supervisors reconvenes to consider the motion on July 27, Santa Claritans need to make a show of force and let L.A. County know we will not be ignored without a fight.

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