This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Legislative leaders want to give the Prison Relocation Commission the authority to determine where a new state penitentiary is built, bypassing a politically messy debate while ensuring the prison in Draper is eventually demolished.
Rep. Brad Wilson, co-chairman of the commission, presented the idea to House Republicans on Tuesday and defended the Legislature's 2014 decision to move the prison, which now sits on land state leaders want to turn into a high-tech business park.
He said consultants studying potential sites will need until May, or possibly June, to wrap up their work. At that time, he believes it makes more sense to let the commission, which is comprised of seven state lawmakers, make the final decision, rather than call the Legislature into a special session.
"What we are trying to do is take as much of the politics out of this as possible," Wilson said. In response, some of his colleagues shouted "can't do it." Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman, argued the Legislature shouldn't hand off the authority just because moving the prison is politically contentious.
"I think we should stand up and make the decision," Knotwell said.
Wilson said his legislation would require the commission to pick a site from a list of finalists vetted by out-of-state consultants who are experts in their field.
"Maybe we can't take politics out of it completely," he said, "but we can come pretty dang close."
He has the support of House Speaker Greg Hughes and Senate Republican leaders. Hughes, R-Draper, told reporters the government regularly makes real-estate decisions in private meetings to avoid land speculation and he worries about speculation in this case. He also said leaving the decision to the full Legislature could mean the prison is placed in the most politically palatable location.
"If we got into a scenario where we are politicizing it, I think where the sites go could start to lean toward political interests and less toward objectivity," Hughes said.
The House Republican Caucus took no position, deciding to wait and see what the prison commission does in its meeting Friday. In that meeting, the commission is likely to add sites to the list and may remove some of the known finalists, though Wilson said the commission won't be adding any new geographic areas.
The three sites now under consideration include one in west Salt Lake City near the international airport, one near the Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele County and one in the south end of Eagle Mountain in northern Utah County. The local mayors, city councils and grassroots groups oppose each of these locations.
The commission's consultants have recently looked at parcels in Tooele County and northwest Utah County, some near Five Mile Pass.
Stephanie Gricius, a leading member of group called Keep it in Draper, believes it makes no sense to let the commission approve a prison move on its own.
"This is one of the largest projects the state has ever undertaken and it should not be decided by just a few people," said Gricius, who lives in Eagle Mountain. "The idea of having the committee make the decision so that the rest of the Legislature doesn't have to is absolutely absurd."
Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, said during the caucus that he wants to rebuild the Draper prison at the current site and opposes Wilson's proposal. Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, who represents the district that includes the Tooele site, has drafted legislation that would encourage the Prison Relocation Commission to take another look at revamping the prison where it is. That legislation, which has yet to get a hearing, has 17 co-sponsors.
While Wilson faced some pushback, he also received support from a number of lawmakers such as Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, and Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper. They argued the relocation would free up valuable land in Draper and result in a new prison better suited for treatment and vocational training.