Environmental review gives green light to new jail

Published on Wed, Nov 13, 2013 by Ian Ferguson

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After an extensive environmental review, jail planners have recommended giving the green light to the proposed site of the new Whatcom County Jail and sheriff’s facilities.

Principals from the DLR Group and Shockey Planning Group, the two firms charged with planning and designing the jail, presented Whatcom County Council members the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) issued November 7, along with a report assessing the county’s needs for the new jail.

Reid Shockey, president of Shockey Planning Group, told council members that the site on LaBounty Road would be able to handle the project.

“After all of the environmental review, the document concludes that the site will accommodate this facility,” he said. “We have identified the impacts, and mitigation can offset those impacts.”

To comply with Ferndale city code, the jail would be set back 250 feet from the road and no inmate activity would be visible from anywhere outside the property. Aesthetically, the jail would look like any commercial or industrial building in the area.

“It will be a jail that doesn’t look like a jail,” Shockey said.

The FEIS includes traffic statistics compiled by Gibson Traffic Consultants.

“The impacts of this facility on traffic are expected to be minor,” Shockey said.

The city of Ferndale is in the process of updating its sewage treatment facilities, so Shockey said onsite sewage treatment might have to be built into the design of the jail.

About three acres of wetlands would be eliminated by the jail’s construction. 

“Two wetlands will be wiped out, but there is mitigation provided on the site. There are other wetlands that may see temporary impacts, but we have a mitigation plan to minimize the impacts of construction and afterwards,” Shockey said.

Comments from the SEIS brought up concerns of nearby landfill sites with hazardous waste.

“We did a lot of test digs throughout the site. People had expressed concerns about various landfills around the site containing hazardous material. Those studies confirmed that the hazardous materials are off the property and the subsurface drainage drains away from the site, so there is virtually no impact from those,” Shockey said.

A conditional use permit from the city of Ferndale is required before the county can move ahead with purchasing the property.

“This EIS was drafted assuming the building would be 660 beds, knowing full well it would likely be smaller,” Shockey said. “That was to comply with State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) regulations that require us to assume a maximum case.” Shockey added that if the jail were built smaller, a new EIS would not be required.

Bill Valdez, principal of the DLR Group, presented the needs assessment report. Based on projected population growth, the county requires a jail with 521 beds to meet current demand and projected growth over the next few years and would need 649 beds by 2026. A facility of that size would cost around $109 million.

“The feedback we’re getting is that the price tag is a little too high,” council member Sam Crawford said. 

“As a county council, administrator and community, we’re going to have to look at this and find a balance between what we need and what we can afford,” Louws said. “We’re talking about a four to six year construction process, but today we need to take the important step of deciding if this property works for us.”

In their regular session on November 12, the county council approved an ordinance establishing a project fund for the new jail with a 6–0 vote.

The full texts of both the FEIS and the needs assessment are available on the county’s jail planning website at co.whatcom.us/jailsiting.