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The Prison Relocation Commission finds itself in a bit of a conundrum. Key members strongly disagree with three of the six sites under consideration, all of them identified by consultants using criteria the commission approved.
Locations in West Jordan, Eagle Mountain and Saratoga Springs seem illogical to some. But if commissioners, who are also state lawmakers, nix a location before a full review, they open themselves to accusations they are gaming what was supposed to be an objective process devoid of politics.
Yet, standing pat and letting that review go forward has sparked something of a free-for-all. One city is cutting a deal with a politically connected developer, another is planning to hire a lobbyist to oppose a developer represented by a state senator and a number of community groups are holding rallies and organizing protests, all of which may be unnecessary.
"A lot of bridges are being burned right now that probably shouldn't need to be. But it is what it is, we've chosen a process," said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, the co-chairman of the commission.
Middle Earth • This ongoing drama began because Draper city no longer wants to host the Utah State Prison and after a lengthy review, the state Legislature agreed to move it. A prison-less Draper is expected to trigger a big increase in property values and a rush of economic development.
But wouldn't the converse be true: that moving the prison to Eagle Mountain or West Jordan or near the Motorsports Park in Tooele would erode property values and stunt economic development there?
Hundreds of angry residents have asked, if the prison is bad for Draper, why would it be good for their cities?
There's some merit to that argument, said incoming House Speaker Greg Hughes, the man who represents Draper and who desperately wants to see a new prison built elsewhere.
"Don't look at me as your antagonist, look to me as someone who understands your concerns and frankly I feel like I'm representing those concerns on the Prison Relocation Commission," said Hughes, the only member of that powerful board who represents a city with a dog in this fight.
When the commission publicly identified the six potential sites, Hughes immediately moved to add new selection criteria, a sign of his displeasure.
That criteria, quickly adopted by the commission, includes taking into account potential population growth (think of all the new subdivisions around West Jordan and Eagle Mountain), whether building a prison in an area would compete with other economic-development opportunities (West Jordan believes it may land a big business near the potential prison site soon) and a city's master plan.
Hughes doesn't believe it makes sense to put a prison in what he calls "Middle Earth," the state's fast-growing area that encompasses southern Salt Lake County and northern Utah County.
He believes the site in West Jordan and the ones in Eagle Mountain and Saratoga Springs landed on the short list because one-fifth of the criteria, 20 out of 100 location-ranking points, were based on a parcel's proximity to the current prison and current workforce.
"I think that has led us to consider some sites that we otherwise would not have," he said.
Hughes doesn't have the same reservations about the two sites in Salt Lake City and the one in Tooele County.
While commission members say they must keep the current correctional officers in mind, this is a decision about where to place a prison for 50 years or more and over time the workforce will shift to where the jobs are, even if that's farther away from the current metro area. Stevenson said the volunteer base can shift over time, too.
Measuring proximity to Draper doesn't seem to make much sense, Hughes said, because the prison there will eventually be bulldozed.
Consultants were asked to weigh a site's proximity to courts, medical facilities, the prison workforce and the 1,400 volunteers who assist the prison. The first three were relatively easy to evaluate, but the Department of Corrections doesn't have the addresses for each volunteer, so consultants used the Draper prison as a proxy location.
"We need to make sure we don't over-weigh that criteria," said Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, a commission co-chairman. "That is the process we are going through right now."
No acceptance • While consultants continue digging into population projections and economic analysis, community leaders have waged aggressive anti-prison campaigns. The commission expected some pushback, but not this much. Clearly, neither did the consultants, who gave each of the six sites high scores in the "community acceptance" category.
Five of the six sites received 10 out of 15 points, while the one in Saratoga Springs received 12. Consultants didn't come up with that number by talking to city leaders or polling the public. Instead, they based it on the views of the property owner and proximity to current housing developments.
Stevenson said the community acceptance scores should be close to zero considering the fallout since the commission announced its short list on Dec. 3.
Saratoga Springs has essentially removed itself from contention by striking an unusually fast annexation and development deal with the landowners of a potential prison site. Those landowners include Josh Romney, the son of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Eagle Mountain's City Council approved a resolution allowing the mayor to spend up to $50,000 to oppose the prison site advocated by a developer represented by attorney Mark Madsen, who also is a state senator. The money will likely go to a lobbyist and to pay for signs and mailers for an active community group.
West Jordan city leaders rallied support from nearby cities and is now planning a second public protest on Monday.
Tooele County leaders and concerned residents protested on Thursday. They don't want to see a prison next to the Motorsports Park, though some officials would consider moving it elsewhere.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker issued a report detailing his objections to moving the prison near the airport, including the argument that the state's capital city already has its share of correctional facilities and halfway houses. The Salt Lake City Council is planning a news conference for Tuesday to voice its opposition as well.
All of those sites will stay in contention until at least Dec. 22, when the commission holds its next meeting. At that time, some may drop off and the rankings may change. The commission is expected to announce a public process, where the community can have input. In all, it's expected to take months for the state to make a final selection, foiling initial plans of having a site picked during the legislative session beginning in January.
Despite the frustration, the public contention and questions over criteria, Hughes argues that this process is a good one. The state could have held no public hearings on moving the prison, relying instead on laws saying that potential real-estate transactions with government can remain behind closed doors. And it could have sent out a request for proposal to developers and picked a winner within three months.
The Legislature didn't go that route, in part because moving a prison is a "heavy political lift," Hughes said, but also because he believed the public deserved a more open process, no matter how messy it becomes.
"I know people are frustrated, but I think at the end of the day we will land on the best site because of the input we are receiving," he said, "And because of the debate that is going on."
Prison site finalists
West Jordan • Near U-111 and 9000 South
Salt Lake City • North of Salt Lake City International Airport
Northwest Utah Valley • Near Camp Williams, Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain
Salt Lake City • Near Interstate 80 and 7200 West
Eagle Mountain • Near Lake Mountain Road and 1000 North
Tooele County • Near SR 112 and Depot Boundary Road, close to Miller Motorsports
Source: Prison Relocation Commission