Residents of a neighborhood where Salt Lake County is proposing a new jail for misdemeanor offenders are seething about its potential for housing accused murderers and drug dealers.
At a public hearing Thursday night before the Planning and Zoning Commission, more than five dozen citizens turned out to oppose the planned jail at 33rd South and the Jordan River.The Planning Commission heard more than 90 minutes of testimony but made no decision. Commission members agreed to take more public comment during a March 16 meeting, saying the next two weeks will give them time to digest the information presented Thursday.
The $8 million to $10 million jail is needed to curb overcrowding at the 22-year-old downtown facility, county officials say. Salt Lake County Sheriff Pete Hayward has ordered the jail population held at 550 inmates to stave off lawsuits.
Since then, jailers routinely turn away misdemeanor offenders, some felony cases and those arrested on bench warrants, which has local law enforcement agencies concerned about liability over letting criminals back out on the streets.
But to residents surrounding the Oxbow property where the 350-bed dormintory-style jail would be located, the proposal has the potential to bring in worse neighbors than shoplifters.
"I'm not really offended by the misdemeanor facility. But I am offended by the expansion of the use," said F.C. Stangl, a developer who owns property at 33rd South and 11th West.
John Cowan, owner of the Bryman School in Stangl's development, said he moved from a facility across from the Metropolitan Hall of Justice to get away from the unsavory people around the jail, who propositioned his employees and students for drugs and sex.
"Do you want that kind of activity in South Salt Lake," he asked commissioners.
And Cowan echoed Stangl's sentiments about the potential. "I am not against a good facility. But I am very against what will happen. This facility will become a maximum security facility. Look at the history" of misdemeanor jails that became maximum security jails.
The jail would be an honor farm for those already arrested, booked, tried and convicted of crimes such as driving while intoxicated, bad-check writing and other misdemeanor offenses. Judges routinely sentence such offenders to the downtown jail, where more serious criminals are housed pending trial.
"We do not plan to put anybody in that facility who is a danger to your city," said Salt Lake County Attorney Dave Yocom.
While Yocom said he could not guarantee what future commissions and county attorneys would do, "We will not change from a misdemeanor facility to maximum facility without your approval."
Although the county owns the land, which is zoned for agricultural use, it must receive a conditional-use permit from the local community if constructing a municipal building.
"We don't want to lose this construction season," Yocom said. "It's very important that construction begin this season."
But funding for the jail still is an unknown. Salt Lake County commissioners are preparing to call a bond election possibly this spring to seek the OK from voters for a property tax to build and operate the facility.
And residents' opposition has prompted planners to include in the budget funds to compensate some neighbors whose properties would be affected by the jail.
"It's not so easy to come out and tell you we're going to put a jail in your backyard," Yocom said, adding the City Council has the final say on whether the conditional-use permit will be granted.