Salt Lake County officials breathed a sigh of relief Wednesday night - and crowded inmates at the county jail may soon breathe better, too.
In a surprise move, the City Council of South Salt Lake voted 3-1 to accept the county's request for a conditional-use permit to build a 350-bed minimum security jail in the city at 33rd South next to the Jordan River.The decision overturned last week's recommendation from the Planning and Zoning Commission to deny the request.
"This is the toughest decision we have ever been faced with," said Councilwoman Joyce H. Nelson, who made the motion to overturn the commission's recommendation because it was "in the best interest of South Salt Lake and the county as well."
Salt Lake County has long fought for the jail, which officials say is essential in order to alleviate extreme overcrowded conditions at the county's only jail. The new minimum security jail will only house misdemeanor offenders, but many residents have argued that their neighborhoods would become unsafe and undesirable.
"I'm living with the smell of dead garbage from the sewer plant and now you want us to put live garbage in back of us," said Ruth Yates, a resident who has lived in the area for 30 years.
"It's the people the facility brings that we have problems with," said John Cowan, owner of the nearby Bryman School. Cowan said that students and faculty at the school's location across from the county jail have been propositioned for sex and drugs and he is afraid the same will happen in South Salt Lake.
But Salt Lake County Attorney David Yocom, saying this was the most important issue of his 23-year career, reiterated that the facility would be safe.
"I assure them that they're going to have good neighbors in the county," he said. "They're going to have to wait and see. Everybody objects to it at first. But after they've lived with it for awhile, they'll see it will be all right.'
County Commission Chairman Mike Stewart commended the City Council for "seeing a larger need than just South Salt Lake.
"Jails are good neighbors. You'll find no loud music . . . no revving of engines," he said. "What's more, these neighbors will all be in bed by 10 o'clock. Now in what neighborhood can you ensure that?"
Stewart told the residents that despite their fears, crime in the area would not increase and property values would actually increase.
"I've seen 21 different jail sites and none of them fit the test like this fits the test," he said of the oxbow property. "I submit to you again these people will be allies and friends of this facility once it is in place, rather than enemies."
Stewart admitted, however, that many steps still need to be taken before the jail is built. "This is the high hurdle, but we still have a lot of low hurdles left," he said The county will ask voters to fund the jail during a bond election May 23. Stewart said the jail is expected to cost between $8 million and $10 million, but he would not estimate how much that may cost each taxpayer.
And if the voters vote against the bond, Stewart said, the U.S. District Court could force the county to build the jail anyway.
South Salt Lake officials emphasized that Wednesday's vote was "conceptual approval only" and all building plans for the property must still be approved.
Commission Chairman Lyle Hereth was visibly upset by the council's decision, but said he would not comment until he could think over the decision.
Mayor Jim Davis, who is only allowed to vote in the case of a tie, said he is opposed to the jail site because the property was originally purchased and zoned for "open space."