Jail decision down to 3 possibilities

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Bedford County Board of Commissioners' courthouse and property committee voted Tuesday night to recommend a short list of three jail sites -- Hart's Chapel Road, Green Lane and Madison Street -- to the full county commission.

The committee eliminated the fourth site it had been considering, the former Shelbyville Central High School on Elm Street, and was not swayed by the most recent pitch for the Deery/Depot site favored by downtown merchants.

Decision time

County Mayor Eugene Ray was heard to tell the committee's vice chair, Linda Yockey, before the meeting what he told the full committee during the meeting -- it was time to make some sort of recommendation and push the matter on to the full county commission. The state has been pressuring the county to choose a jail site by the first of the year.

The full commission isn't bound by the committee's short list and could choose another site if it saw fit. But the committee has been studying the sites for months.

On Tuesday, the current jail -- which has an official capacity of 110 -- housed 175 inmates. That included 54 women and 121 men.

"We're in a bind right now," said jail administrator Tim Lokey.

State pressure

The state has continued to recertify the county jail despite its severe overcrowding and physical deficiencies, but has made it clear that this is dependent on the county making good faith progress towards a new facility. If the state forces the county to close the jail, it could spend millions to house and transport local inmates elsewhere.

Lokey said the county needs to move "as quickly as we can on this property" and noted that the jail will face another state inspection some time after the first of the year.

Architect's view

Architect James Langford of Spirit Architecture LLC, which has been advising the county, presented his ranking of the four short list sites on Tuesday. Langford ranked them as:

1) Hart's Chapel

2) Green Lane

3) Madison Street (the former K-Mart/Kroger shopping center)

4) Elm Street

Langford said he'd recommend eliminating the Elm Street site from consideration due to its small size, narrow shape and numerous drainage problems.

"To me, I would eliminate this out of hand," said Langford. He said estimates for the demolition of the school building have run as high as $1 million due to asbestos and said the drainage issues at the site are "pretty major."

Langford said some late information he received about the Green Lane site, after preparing the memo in which he ranked the sites, does cast the Green Lane site more favorably.

No to downtown

One of the first sites the committee talked about, three years ago, was a site at the corner of Deery and Depot streets. Downtown merchants have complained that removing the judicial system from the county courthouse could have a devastating impact on the square and nearby businesses. County zoning director Chris White had put forth the Deery/Depot site as a way of keeping the judicial system close to downtown and redeveloping a blighted area.

But as time passed, and the county felt itself under increasing pressure to act quickly, the committee eventually ruled out the Deery/Depot site, saying that the number of landowners involved and the cost and difficulty of acquiring the property would be prohibitive, especially if some landowners refused to sell and the county had to invoke its power of eminent domain to condemn those sites.

Merchants' request

However, Jennifer Templeton, representing the downtown merchants, said the merchants have talked to and negotiated with the landowners and that the county could acquire a first phase of 15.4 acres, from seven property owners who are willing to sell, for much less than the county had estimated based on tax records.

"We have uncomplicated it," said Templeton. She said it would cost $1.2 million for the county to acquire the phase one property. She also said some of the existing buildings on the site could be sold and relocated.

She said the merchants are still researching the remainder of the site, which the county could acquire as a second phase.

"We feel strongly about keeping our court system downtown," said Templeton.

Not enough time

Langford's presentation to the committee said it would take 16-26 acres to accommodate a jail, justice center, parking, and future expansion.

Commissioner Chuck Heflin, however, said he still thinks it would be too complex and time-consuming to acquire the site from so many landowners.

"How quick can we break ground and start building?" asked Heflin. Heflin said he knows of one property owner on the site who steadfastly refuses to sell.

There were also concerns raised because the site would be across the street from a pre-existing day care center and close to East Side Elementary School.

Green Lane hit

Yram Lopez, pastor of Shelbyville United Pentecostal Church on Green Lane, spoke in objection to locating the jail there. The committee had been talking about the Green Lane site for months, with no neighbors attending any of the previous meetings.

"I read with chagrin that nobody spoke against it, so I'm here to do that," said Lopez. He said the site has an apartment complex and a residential neighborhood nearby.

Neighbors of the Hart's Chapel site also repeated their objections from a previous meeting.

Near industry?

Templeton noted that one of her previous jobs involved doing due diligence for site selection and noted the Hart's Chapel site's proximity to local industrial sites.

"I can tell you that I would never put my manufacturing facility next to a jail," said Templeton. "I just wouldn't do it."

Langford, however, presented letters and news clippings from Searcy, Arkansas. White County, Arkansas, located a jail and justice center in an industrial park in Searcy. Some businesses strongly objected to the placement, but a year later businesses and county officials reported that the jail had been a good neighbor and had not affected their property values or operations. New apartments were even built in the area.

Action urged

Ray urged the committee to move forward and send some sort of report or recommendation to the full commission.

"We've talked over these sites for three months," said Heflin. "Twice, we've narrowed it down to these four." Heflin suggested sending all four sites to the full commission.

Commissioner Bob Davis suggested leaving off the Elm Street site, and Heflin agreed that he doubted anyone would vote for the site. Heflin then moved to send the Green Lane, Hart's Chapel and Madison Street sites to the full commission.

"This committee has beat this horse until it can't walk any more," said Heflin.

Time factor

Commissioner Julie Wells Sanders said to the downtown merchants that the Deery/Depot site was a good idea.

"I would give anything if we could fast-forward it and make it happen," she said. But she said she can't take the chance of saddling the taxpayers with the costs that would result from a forced closure of the jail by the state if work on the Deery/Depot site takes too long.

The committee voted to send the three sites to the full commission, which will meet 7 p.m. Nov. 8 -- Election Night -- in the second floor courtroom at the county courthouse.