By Dana M. Nichols

SAN ANDREAS – Calaveras County may resort to eminent domain to take 57 acres of land it wants for a new jail and county courthouse in San Andreas.

The owners of the two parcels just north of the existing government center have not responded to the county’s purchase offer, said Brent Harrington, the county’s interim administrative officer. The delay threatens as much as $30 million in state money needed to help build the jail.

County supervisors on Tuesday will consider approving the use of eminent domain to take the two parcels. The county needs control of the land by June so Calaveras County can qualify for the state money to help build the jail, which also will be funded in part with a local bond measure Calaveras voters approved in November.

“We reached conclusion in early December on a staff level that it would be in the best interests of the county to buy both of those parcels,” Harrington said.

The more northerly of the two lots belongs to Galt-based developer Ryan Voorhees. Dave Tanner, a land-use consultant representing Voorhees, said that his client has reached agreement with the county on the terms of a sale.

The southern lot belongs to construction company owner Greg Opinski of Merced. Mike Dell’Orto, a consultant who represents Opinski, said his client disagrees both with the price the county is offering and with the idea that the county needs the entire lot.

Dell’Orto said Opinski would be happy to sell part of the area the county needs but that Opinski would like to keep the rest for a commercial development.

Harrington said that other than informal verbal statements about the price, neither landowner has responded to the county’s offer. Neither Harrington nor the representatives of the landowners disclosed the amounts of the county’s offers.

The county already owns land between the library and some existing temporary county buildings that could be used as a jail site. But county staffers and court officials prefer a larger site to also accommodate courts and the future expansion of county offices.

“We have some very stringent timelines to deal with,” Harrington said. “Not only for the court but for the jail and to apply for what we think will be a successful effort to apply for funds from AB900.”

Assembly Bill 900 authorizes $750 million in state money to be distributed to local governments this year to build jails. San Joaquin and Calaveras counties are each expected to have strong applications for the money. The two counties are participating in an effort to open a re-entry state prison facility in Stockton. Opening such a facility, where inmates spend the final months of their prison terms, increases a local agency’s chances of winning the state funding.

Harrington said that starting eminent domain now would allow the county to take control of the land by June and in time to meet AB900 requirements. Under eminent domain, a judge sets the price the county would pay for the land.

If all goes well for the county, construction on the jail could begin in 2009 and be completed in 2010.

The current jail is so small that hundreds of inmates each year are released before completing their sentences.

Calaveras County officials historically have been reluctant to use eminent domain to take property. This time, however, it may be necessary, said county Supervisor Bill Claudino, who represents San Andreas on the board.

“I’m not a big fan of eminent domain myself. But it is not like we are taking somebody’s home from them. The people have owned that land for less than a year. It is an investment,” Claudino said. “It may be something we are forced to do for the public good.”