Old Jail in Court
Appeals Court considers complaint against County.
Thursday, August 26, 2004
A group of local residents determined to save the old Monterey County Jail from the wrecking ball got their day in court—again—this week.
At a hearing on Tuesday, Aug. 24, in the state Court of Appeals in San Jose, an attorney for a Salinas-based group called the Architectural Heritage Association argued that the Board of Supervisors should have prepared a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) before voting to raze the 73-year-old building. United Farm Workers founder César Chávez was incarcerated in the jail for three weeks in 1970.
“We’re not talking about whether the court may demolish the jail,” attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley told the three-judge panel of the Sixth Appellate Court, “We’re only talking about whether they must complete an Environmental Impact Report. And in this case, [a] review is mandated.”
Brandt-Hawley’s law firm specializes in historic preservation cases throughout California.
A Monterey County judge had rejected the association’s arguments, and ruled that the County did not need to prepare an EIR, but the group appealed his decision.
The Court of Appeals will issue its ruling in the next few months. “We’re optimistic,” said a smiling Mark Norris, a Salinas building designer and president of the Architectural Heritage Association immediately following the court proceeding, during which the judges repeatedly questioned Deputy County Counsel Efren Iglesia about the Supervisors’ decision not to prepare a complete EIR.
Acting Presiding Justice Patricia Bamattre-Manoukain reminded Iglesia of the “low threshold requiring the initial preparation of an Environmental Impact Report,” and told him that EIRs are “the heart of CEQA” (the California Environmental Quality Act).
Two years ago, Monterey County Supervisors agreed to destroy the vacant building at 142 West Alisal St. The demolition is part of the planned $78 million renovation of the adjacent county courthouse and government offices.
Local history buffs asked the Board of Supervisors to at least prepare an EIR on the plans to raze the jail, but County officials say it would be a waste of money to prove what they already know—that the jail is a threat to public health and safety. They say the old jail is structurally unstable; water damaged, and filled with asbestos, mold and lead-based paint.
County officials say it would cost between $150,000 and $200,000 for a full EIR. And they insist that Chávez’s memory—and his contributions to the farmworkers’ struggles—will be commemorated in the new county offices.
(Chávez was thrown in the jail for refusing to call off a lettuce boycott. His incarceration brought international attention to the farm labor movement, and attracted many high-profile visitors, including the widows of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.)
In court on Aug. 24, Iglesia reminded the judges that Supervisor Fernando Armenta, himself a long-time UFW supporter, did not support preserving the old jail. Iglesia argued that the 18 conditions imposed on the demolition project—including photo recordation, creating a historical monograph of the old jail and saving its blueprints, among other things—are a sufficient act of preservation.
“The County has made every effort to ensure the jail’s history is documented,” Iglesia said.
Countered Associate Justice Richard McAdams: “It seems to me without the [EIR], your platform, or the basis for making a determination about the effectiveness of the mitigation measures, is less adequate.”
Added Justice Bamattre-Manoukain: “It may well be in the future the jail is demolished…but really, the question is should an Environmental Impact Report be done?”
Meanwhile, Norris and company are continuing to push for the old jail’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Back in February 2004, the federal government listed it. At that time, it was believed to be the first and only nationally listed site memorializing Chávez.
Shortly thereafter, county attorneys began working to get the old jail de-listed, arguing that the state and federal governments didn’t follow correct procedures.
The feds complied with the County’s requests, de-listed the building, and asked the state for additional information before replacing the jail on the National Registry.
Earlier this month, by a unanimous vote, the State Historic Resources Commission reaffirmed its nomination of the old jail, and again recommended it be placed on the register. The Commission then sent the nomination on to the Federal Keeper of the List for processing and ultimate addition to the National Register.
“We expect to be back on the list in two months,” Norris says.