Environmental assessment for jail site moves forward

Published on Wed, Apr 10, 2013 by Ian Ferguson

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Planning for Whatcom County’s new jail moved one step forward as county executive Jack Louws gave approval for the jail-planning consultant, Shockey Planning Group, to proceed with the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), a key step in the planning process.

The SEIS will focus on 40 acres of industrial-zoned land west of the corner of Sunset Avenue and La Bounty Drive in Ferndale. With more than 1,300 feet of public road frontage, less than half a mile proximity to I-5 and readily available three-phase power, the property scored the highest out of 11 proposed jail sites that were examined by a group of jail planning experts.

In 2010 the county put together a statement evaluating the environmental impact of building a jail at various sites.

“None of those sites passed muster,” Louws said. “The SEIS will piggyback on that original document, and look at the environmental effects on this proposed site and a no-action alternative.”

The SEIS will help the county’s chosen jail planning firm, Everett-based DLR Group, to determine the site’s viability from an environmental perspective, but Louws said the county also wants public input.

“Not only will we be doing our due diligence concerning the environmental impacts of the project, we’ll also be looking at the social and economic impacts,” he said. “We want to engage the public so the council can make a fully-informed decision.”

Public comments on the scope of the investigation can be submitted at a still-to-be scheduled meeting in the next couple of months. The public comments and the SEIS will help county council decide whether or not to purchase the property.

Planning for the new jail began in April 2011, when Whatcom County Council enacted a resolution establishing the jail planning task force (JPTF). The JPTF announced its unanimous conclusion to the council one year later, stating, “Due to overcrowding, life/safety and physical plant concerns in the main jail facility, Whatcom County needs a new jail.” The report went on to describe the need as “critical.”

In letters to the editor and during open sessions at county council meetings, members of the public have expressed reservations over the size of the proposed jail.

“I don’t want to see a 60-acre mega-jail complex,” said resident Jack Copeland at a March 2012 meeting of the JPTF. “How are we going to build a bigger jail and get the money to run it if we can’t afford to run the smaller one now?”

The opening of the minimum-security interim work center in 2006 brought the total capacity of the county jail system to 430 inmates. According to Public Safety Now, a group advocating for the new jail, the interim work center was designed as a temporary solution to relieve overcrowding in the main jail. The main jail’s kitchen, laundry, medical and recreation areas were originally designed for only 148 inmates. In December 2011, the average daily population at the jail was 428.

A riot at Whatcom County Jail in October 2012 highlighted the aging infrastructure of the current jail. Inmates ripped a vent off the wall, pried locks off of cells and caused $10,000 worth of damage.

“A major contributing factor to this incident is the deteriorated and insufficient jail facility,” said Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo in a press release following the riot.

In a letter published in The Northern Light March 20, Elfo said the current jail system offers little flexibility to meet fluctuating security and special housing needs.

“Life-safety issues, human conditions, potential taxpayer liability and extraordinary repair costs dictate this process move forward,” Elfo said.

Jail planners estimate that the capacity of the new jail will be 500-700 beds.

“I don’t think anybody wants to build it bigger than it needs to be,” Louws said. “At the same time, we don’t want to outgrow it right after we build it.” 

Louws said the county wants the new jail to fulfill foreseeable incarceration needs for at least 20 years, which is how long it will take to pay for the project.

Funding for the new jail comes from a variety of sources, including a 0.1 percent sales and use tax earmarked for new jail facilities, which passed a public vote and was adopted in 2004.

The next steps in planning and design for DLR Group include assessing jail housing needs, recommending system changes to reduce future jail needs and estimating overall cost.