San Clemente city leaders are pushing back on a plan proposed by Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration to redevelop a mental health campus spanning over 100 acres owned by the state in Costa Mesa into housing.
The opposition comes as the state is rolling out mental health courts, dubbed CARE Courts, that will begin ruling next week in Orange County on court-mandated treatment plans for homeless people wrestling with mental health issues or drug abuse problems.
Yet there’s still lingering questions on where homeless people in CARE court will be sent.
The Fairview Developmental Center has sat in the city since 1959, serving residents with developmental disorders but was closed by state leaders after multiple deaths at the facility.
This week state officials are set to hold a community meeting to discuss the project on Thursday at the Fairview Center’s auditorium at 6 p.m. to answer questions on a newly proposed emergency center and the construction’s impacts on the area.
Most recently, San Clemente City Council members publicly called for the state to turn Fairview into a regional homeless center, sheltering the unhoused and offering services to help get them into more permanent living situations.
“Orange County, specifically South OC, doesn’t have a regional center,” said San Clemente Councilman Mark Enmeier, one of the four who voted in favor of pushing for Fairview’s redevelopment.
“We desperately need all the help we can get.”
OC Supervisor Katrina Foley, also former mayor of Costa Mesa and whose district includes much of South County, said it’s the individual cities’ responsibility to address the homeless issue with help from the county.
“Why is that fair to Costa Mesa? To shoulder the burden of residents who are not from the area?” Foley said in an interview. “It doesn’t solve the problem. It would give Costa Mesa more beds, but it wouldn’t help San Clemente.”
San Clemente City Council members have resisted a shelter in their city for years and most recently hired security guards to monitor homeless people on the beach.
The Fairview Developmental Center opened in 1959, originally sitting on over 750 acres that was later whittled down to a 109 acre property, which was largely left alone until state leaders closed the facility in 2016.
At that point, Costa Mesa and other cities in the county began to question what the land should turn into after the closure, with some calling for the county to take advantage of a large, empty parcel of land to create a homeless services center.
San Clemente repeated that call last month, when a majority of city council members sent a letter to the city asking for the site to be converted to housing for the homeless, along with supportive services.
“With this being a state facility, it would seem to make sense when the facility is closed and repurposed it should benefit all the communities in the county rather than a single community,” said San Clemente City Manager Andy Hall at the council’s Aug. 15 meeting.
But plans for a regional homeless facility never materialized, and Costa Mesa City Manager Lori Ann Farrell Harrison said the city fought hard to keep any kind of homeless service facility out of the city at Fairview.
“Our first engagement with the state was regarding that issue, and our desire for the site not to be used in that fashion,” Farrell-Harrison said during last Tuesday’s city council meeting.
She echoed an argument made by city officials throughout Orange County.
“We didn’t want Costa Mesa to take the brunt of the entire county,” Farrell-Harrison said.
Under the proposed plan, roughly 94 of the 109 acres will be converted into housing, while the leftover 15 acres will go to a new emergency operations center run by the California Office of Emergency Services, which would help coordinate disaster relief across Southern California.
City staff are aiming to find a developer for the site by 2025, and will help the city meet its state-mandated housing goals, with estimates that it will bring 2300 new housing units to the city, satisfying nearly 20% of the city’s housing requirements on its own according to the city’s approved housing plan.
Farrell-Harrison added that Foley – when she was mayor – was a big help to their efforts, traveling to Sacramento to push state leaders away from turning the site into a homeless shelter, and that Gov. Gavin Newsom put a “kibosh,” on any discussion of a homeless shelter at the site.
“That was a successful lobbying effort,” Farrell-Harrison said.
Newsom’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.
Foley said while Costa Mesa set up a shelter in partnership with Newport Beach for those two cities, other South OC cities have yet to find a solution.
Foley pointed out that while there are homeless shelters in both North and Central Orange County, South OC cities have yet to agree on where more shelters should go, claiming that until they bring an option to the county there isn’t much that can happen.
“When we moved forward with the Costa Mesa shelter, we had some foundational sort of parameters that we all agreed on as a council,” Foley said. “I think what the cities in South County need to do is do the same thing – come together, create some guidelines for where a shelter in south county would be appropriate. Then…I can help them get the funding.”
County supervisor Don Wagner, who also represents parts of south OC, did not respond to requests for comment.
Kathy Esfahani, chair of the San Clemente Affordable Housing Coalition, agreed with Foley that it was on South County to figure out its own problems.
But she also said that San Clemente had been opposing a shelter in their own city for years.
“The city is looking to export its own homeless problem,” Esfahani said. “For the city council to vote 4-1 to say ‘Oh we’ll just ask the state to take care of all the unhoused people in south county up in Costa Mesa’ it’s a typical dodge.”
When asked what it would take to set up new shelters in south Orange County, Esfahani only saw one option: a lawsuit.
“I think they’ll have to get sued. That’s how shelters got opened in Costa Mesa, Anaheim and Fullerton. It was because Judge Carter forced them,” she said. “There’s a long held attitude in San Clemente that unhoused people are an inconvenience, an eye sore, and they just need to be swept away.”
When asked if that was a common thought in south Orange County, she said “Actions speak for themselves.”
San Clemente Councilman Enmeier said that while Foley’s idea for cities working out a site was good in theory, none of the cities are willing to take the leap out of a fear they’d be stuck funding the shelters.
“The fear is that if your city sets up a regional center, well that will be a magnet for everyone else,” Enmeier said. “We don’t know if we’re going to get continual support, or is some of that funding going to dry up? Who’s left with the bill?”
Enmeier asked for the county to take a bigger leadership role on the process and help cities take that next step, pointing out that cities with shelters actually saw a drop in their unhoused population.
“Cities that actually get something done and put something forward are the cities that actually tackle homelessness,” Enmeier said. “If each of our smaller communities were to take a smaller piece of the pie, then we could get it done, but everyone’s afraid of being the first one to do it out of a fear of being the magnet.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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