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The Prison Relocation Commission is looking to expand its list of top contenders after two cities found ways to sidestep the process and others are vehemently protesting the idea of moving the prison to their neighborhood.
Two key commissioners said they are prepared to expand the next phase of the search and they are looking squarely at Tooele County, hoping to find land that would be more politically palatable than the initial list of six finalists.
Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, co-chairman of the commission, said landowners offered three new promising sites in Tooele on Tuesday that he has forwarded to the state's consultants for review. Incoming House Speaker Greg Hughes said he believes it is time to consider new properties, adding that he found the six sites to be less than "ideal" prospects for the state prison.
Hughes doesn't want the new prison site to face the same problem as the one in Draper, the city he represents, which has seen development on all sides of the 700-acre complex.
"We need to find a remote-enough site around unencroachable areas with a workforce and a volunteer-force who can access that," Hughes said on Trib Talk, The Salt Lake Tribune's daily online video chat. "I know that sounds like a daunting task, but I do believe we can do it better than we are right now."
The commission narrowed 26 sites to six finalists, which it released Dec. 3, sparking weeks of intensifying protests. West Jordan dropped off that list on Monday after the property owners decided to back away due to public outcry. The Saratoga Springs City Council previously cut a deal with landowners to build a housing development on potential prison land.
That leaves four finalists, including one in Eagle Mountain and one in Tooele County, near the Miller Motorsports Park. Tooele County leaders oppose that site, saying it is in an area they believe is better suited for hotels and restaurants. Some county leaders have expressed a willingness to search for other land more suitable for a prison. The other two parcels are close to the Salt Lake City International Airport and city leaders held a pair of public events Tuesday to oppose that idea.
Hughes and Stevenson want the commission's process to play out and that means consultants will examine each parcel with a set of criteria in mind. The commission expanded that criteria at Hughes' request to consider future population growth and economic-development potential. The incoming speaker believes the commission ultimately would have rejected the Saratoga Springs and West Jordan sites if the owners hadn't backed out.
The commission's next meeting is Monday and Hughes said the list of potential sites may face a significant shake-up.
"Is it one of the ones we are looking at right now? That is what these public hearings are for. That is what this whole process has been designed to ultimately determine," Hughes said. "And if that site isn't right, we call upon Tooele County commissioners or other landowners to step forward and show us some better sites."
In the meantime, cities on the list will continue their fight. That included public gatherings Tuesday in Salt Lake City, where leaders detailed a list of objections to rebuilding the state prison in the shadow of the airport. One expressed concern about the impact on migratory birds and another said the land would be better suited for a business park.
Mayor Ralph Becker even warned of the potential that an earthquake could cause a cataclysmic wave from the Great Salt Lake that would either drown inmates or force guards to let criminals go free.
Some members of the City Council, such as Chairman Charlie Luke, argue the prison should remain where it is in Draper, while other leaders suggested the state Legislature has far more homework to do if it is ever going to find a suitable place to build a replacement
"If the state is serious about looking for a site, then they better look at sites much more carefully then they have today," Becker said, eliciting cheers from about 150 residents who gathered at the Utah State Fairpark for a quickly planned rally. The mayor also invited residents to come to City Hall in the evening to voice their concerns about the prison-relocation process.
The two Salt Lake City sites include one north of the international airport on land that has been in the Swaner family for nearly 100 years. The other parcel is near Interstate 80 and 7200 West.
That land is owned by Rio Tinto, the parent company for the Kennecott copper mine. Rio Tinto spokeswoman Piper Rhodes has previously said the company is not "actively promoting" the site, but has also decided to keep it as part of the relocation process. Becker plans to meet again with Rio Tinto officials in coming days in an attempt to persuade them to withdraw the site.
Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers, who represents the area that includes the two potential prison locations, has met with representatives of the Swaner family and has talked to two developers interested in purchasing the plot.
He says putting a prison there would hurt the growth in business development surrounding the airport.
Councilman Kyle LaMalfa, who also represents portions of west Salt Lake City, said his main concern is the impact a prison could have on neighborhoods of large families.
"We don't want our kids growing up in the shadow of a prison fence," he said.