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Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel Tuesday decided to fight plans by the Orange County Board of Supervisors to build homeless shelters in the cities on county-owned land.

The shelter plan is part of an ongoing federal court case filed against the county in January by attorneys on behalf of homeless people. The county agreed to move at least 400 people from the Santa Ana Riverbed into motels for a month — that number grew past 700. Now the county is scrambling to find shelters for the people leaving the motels plus more homeless living at the Santa Ana Civic Center.

“We are not going to let the county just pick it (the homeless camps) up from the riverbed and from the courthouse and move it (the homeless camps) here,” Irvine Mayor Don Wagner said at Tuesday night’s special council meeting where the council voted to sue the county.

“This is irresponsible, this is unconscionable and this is outrageous,” Laguna Niguel City Councilwoman Linda Lindholm said at their Tuesday council meeting, where members also voted for a law suit. “I have no intention of having this ever endanger our children or our residents. Don’t move your problem out of Anaheim and put it here.”

The county plans to set up 200 beds in Irvine, 100 in Huntington Beach and 100 in Laguna Niguel — in that order, if needed to supplement existing shelters.

The county’s plan was met with opposition by Irvine and Laguna Niguel residents at each city’s council meeting. Wagner called a special meeting to address the issue, while Laguna Niguel Mayor Elaine Gennawey called for a special meeting after the city’s regular meeting.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who represents the 3rd district that encompasses most of Irvine, was critical of the county’s plan and told Irvine council members that it’s the Board of Supervisor’s retribution for a November lawsuit by Irvine against the county over proposed development the same parcel of land.  Spitzer was the lone dissenting supervisor vote on adding the shelters at the board’s special Monday meeting.

Irvine decided to sue in November after the Board of Supervisors approved a project that would create up to one million square feet of office space, 2,100 homes, 200,000 square feet of retail space, and a 242-room hotel on the 108-acre parcel of county land along Marine Way, south of the Great Park.

It’s not the only time Irvine has been in a fight with the county over the Marine Way land, and it’s not the first time a homeless shelter has been considered there.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson sent county CEO Frank Kim a memo last May that proposed a 100-bed shelter on the parcel. Nelson’s memo was met with resistance from Irvine council members the following month.

Spitzer said the county is using the lawsuit and the homeless shelter as leverage to get Irvine to scale back its opposition and withdraw its lawsuit blocking the commercial and residential development on the Marine Way land. He also said at least 250 homeless people are refusing services.

“While this proposal is now in a context of a court order, it’s the county’s way of putting pressure on you as a council to get its way for the county’s development of 100 acres for private development which I also objected to,” said Spitzer, who also is a candidate for District Attorney.

Spitzer said he and his board colleagues should confront U.S. District Judge David O. Carter about the Civic Center homeless people and new shelters. Carter has pressed the county and lawyers for homeless people to reach agreements on “humane” ways to close the camps. He expanded the scope of the original Santa Ana riverbed agreements to include efforts to aid roughly 150 people in the Santa Ana Civic Center camp that has existed for years.

“Let’s go back to Judge Carter and tell him he’s exceeded his authority … he does not have the jurisdiction or the ability to start now clearing the Civic Center and telling us we have to erect tents all over this county in order to accommodate those who are unfortunately in this peril,” Spitzer said.

Later in the night, the Laguna Niguel City Council also voted to sue the county. Fifth District Supervisor Lisa Bartlett told the council the Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel sites are “unacceptable.” She said the Huntington Beach site is on an old landfill and said Laguna Niguel’s site is too close to schools and homes. Laguna Niguel is in the 5th district and Bartlett is running unopposed for reelection.

“I have, along with another supervisor, put forth an agenda item … for Tuesday is to have the 400 (beds) put on to the El Toro Marine Base (the Irvine land) … it’s flat, not like anywhere else,” Bartlett told the council, without naming the supervisor.  

Bartlett’s proposal drew the ire of Wagner, who caught wind of what she said at the Laguna Niguel meeting.

“Whether she (Bartlett) can do it or not, it says to me this county is out of control and it’s making it up as it’s going along … it’s no way to run a government, guys. It’s no way to help the homeless,” Wagner, a former Assemblyman, told reporters after the Irvine meeting.

About 20 people spoke at Irvine’s special council meeting, including Spitzer. Nearly all were against the proposed homeless shelter. Many said they feared for their family’s safety and others said they feared property values will dip.

“I didn’t pay nearly $2 million for a home, to live near a homeless encampment,” Irvine resident Jennifer Assouad said during public comment. “This cannot go in this area. It’s right by the soccer fields. How am I going to sell my house, if you got 200 homeless people living there?”

“I think our residents need to be comforted knowing we heard you and we are going to do everything we can to protect you,” Councilman Jeff Lalloway said.

There were at least two people who spoke in favor of the proposed Irvine homeless shelter.

“The only way the county can get out of that (homeless) lawsuit is by creating additional beds and that’s what they’re trying to do here,” homeless advocate and lawyer Mohammed Aly said. “There’s no legitimate rationale that you could possibly be arguing for … There is nothing but bare hatred towards the poor…”

Wagner had to cut off jeers from the audience and said, “I’m going to ask the audience not the insult the speaker and ask the speaker not insult the audience.”

“This is shameful and its because of this exact attitude espoused by every single community, every single time there’s a proposed shelter,” Aly said.  

After Irvine’s meeting, Councilwoman Melissa Fox said the city wants to “assist the county” in addressing the homeless crisis, but the proposed shelter’s location is too close to soccer fields and a senior living home. She disagreed with Spitzer’s assessment of people refusing services.

“Everybody needs some kind of service, but they need them so much so, many of them don’t realize they need them,” Fox told Voice of OC. “They don’t know how to accept … they need so much help. I do agree that these are not people who we want next to a playground.”

Spitzer told both Irvine and Laguna Niguel city councils Tuesday night the proposed Huntington Beach site, on Gothard Street between Ellis and Talbert Avenues, is an old county landfill, which will be nearly impossible to host a shelter due to methane gas and other contaminants, in addition to the challenge of leveling the land.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the Huntington Beach City Council authorized City Attorney Michael Gates Monday night to fight back against the county over its proposed shelter there.

Like Irvine, Laguna Niguel is in another fight with the county about county-owned land that includes the former Harbor Justice Center, next to city hall. The 22-acre site was slated for development that would produce a downtown for the city, but County Supervisors quietly killed the project and Laguna Niguel council members were surprised to learn about it months later.

But Bartlett said the county will try to “fast track” the bid for a new developer. She also said that she will appear — without her board colleagues — in Carter’s chambers Wednesday “to protest’ the proposed homeless shelter next to Laguna Niguel City Hall.

Many of Bartlett’s constituents were angry and confused that she voted for the shelter proposal Monday.

She said she feared Carter would’ve rearranged the priority list and placed Laguna Niguel at number one, instead of Irvine, she told residents and reporters in the community room.

“I wanted to keep Laguna Niguel protected in the number three spot,” Bartlett told residents gathered around her. “The position we’re in right now, we have to push back.”

When asked what the pushback could mean after Irvine had already decided an hour earlier to move on a lawsuit against the county over the shelter proposal, Bartlett wasn’t certain.

“We’re just going to have to see what happens tomorrow, but I can tell you we’re going to fight like heck to make sure it doesn’t come to Laguna Niguel,” she told Voice of OC.

The Laguna Niguel City Council Chamber was packed with standing room only. One city employee said the fire marshall warned it was too crowded, so people had to flood into a nearby community room to watch the meeting on a television, while others waited in the parking lot. At least 40 people spoke, nearly all voiced objections.

Even neighboring city councilmen voiced their opposition, including Aliso Viejo Mayor Dave Harrington, who’s running for O.C. Sheriff and Mission Viejo Mayor Ed Sachs, who’s running for state Assembly.

“This is probably the most ridiculous, bone-headed, poor decision ever made by government,” Laguna Niguel Mayor Pro Tem John Mark Jennings said during the council meeting. “The justification is that maybe they’ll fill up the other ones first … I don’t care!…”  

Spitzer also spoke at the Laguna Niguel City Council meeting.

“These (proposed shelter) beds are the lowest of the lowest,” Spitzer told the council. “That means you’re inviting the lowest common denominator of the homeless community who don’t want our help,” he said.

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