Wednesday's meeting of the South Salt Lake Council could make or break Salt Lake County's plans to start building a 350-bed minimum security jail near 33rd South and the Jordan River later this year.
Council members are scheduled to vote on recommendations from last week's South Salt Lake Planning Commission meeting, during which the county's application for a conditional-use permit to build the new jail was unanimously recommended for denial.If council members vote to accept the Planning Commission's recommendation, and thus deny the county a permit, jail construction probably will be delayed at least a year, said County Commission Chairman Mike Stewart.
And construction delays can only make overcrowding problems at the downtown Salt Lake County Jail even worse. The jail has an official population capacity of 550 prisoners, the cap set by county officials anxious to avoid lawsuits. But on many days in recent months the jail has housed as many as 650 inmates.
"The project can't be delayed. We don't have a good alternative jail site, so we're certainly hoping the South Salt Lake Council will consider our application and override the Planning Commission," Stewart said. "If the city denies us without justification - and we haven't seen any - we feel that's a disservice to its sister cities in the county."
The Planning Commission recommended denial, saying the proposed site, on about 40 acres with the Jordan on three sides, was an unsuitable location for a jail. Numerous area residents and business owners had appeared at a public hearing to oppose a jail in their neighborhood.
County officials contend the facility would not pose a security threat to nearby homes and businesses because only carefully screened, low-risk misdemeanor offenders like drunken drivers and shoplifters would be sentenced to serve time there. Many would be released daily to work their regular jobs and spend only evening and nighttime hours at the jail, county officials say.
"This is the safest kind of facility there is," Stewart said. Should the council vote to accept the denial recommendation, the county could sue South Salt Lake in an attempt to force the city to allow jail construction. While Stewart wouldn't comment on that possibility, other officials have said the county could build a strong case on the claim that South Salt Lake may place conditions on the building of a jail but cannot unreasonably refuse to permit construction.
But the county would like to avoid a suit if possible because a court battle would only delay construction.
County officials also say privately that South Salt Lake wants the jail built on the old Vitro site at 650 W. 33rd South, and they say the city is willing to use its permit authority to pressure the county into building there.
Planning Commission members said last week they do not oppose the location of a jail inside South Salt Lake limits, they just don't want it built on the riverside property.
A minimum-security jail constructed on the Vitro site would validate the site as safe for development now that radioactive tailings have been removed, and would be a magnet to draw other developments to Vitro, county officials say. But they're worried about potential inmate safety and other liability issues that could arise from building a jail at the Vitro site.