BELLINGHAM - The public got officially its first peek at about a dozen possible sites for a new Whatcom County Jail on Tuesday, Dec. 4.
In a presentation to Whatcom County Council and about 80 attendees, County Executive Jack Louws and Sheriff Bill Elfo highlighted three properties - one west of LaBounty Drive near Sunset Avenue; one at Pacific Highway Northwest Avenue; and one in the 4200 block of Hannegan Road - as favored sites, by consensus of a recently formed work group of several county and community leaders.
The 40-acre property off LaBounty was named the preferred property, as selected by the work group: Elfo, Louws, Chief of Corrections Wendy Jones, several other county staff members and two members of an earlier jail task force.
On a screen near the front of the council chambers at 311 Grand Ave., Louws projected an image of the LaBounty property, with a 750-bed jail superimposed on it. The complex took up a little more than a third of the field.
"But in no way are we ready to purchase a property at this time," Louws said. "There's a lot more work that needs to be done, including involving the community in this process."
Ultimately, the county council has the power to purchase property, not the sheriff or the county executive. Louws is hopeful council members will make a final decision by the second half of 2013.
An earlier jail task force recommended the county hire a jail planner and build an expandable jail, initially with enough beds for 500 to 700 inmates.
The work group recommended the county hire DLR Group, a Seattle-based architecture firm that has designed ballparks, high schools and correctional facilities, as its jail planner.
Public hearings on the potential jail sites could take place in the coming months. A few residents who live on or near LaBounty addressed the council Tuesday.
"I suppose it's got to be in someone's backyard," said longtime resident Terry Leishman, who would live about a third of a mile from the jail. "But just imagine if it were your backyard."
In an interview a day before the presentation, Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen acknowledged that the LaBounty property's location - near Interstate 5 and a few miles north of Bellingham - makes it a potential hub for law enforcement agencies throughout the county. He's concerned, however, for families who built their homes in the area decades ago, when Rural Avenue and its surroundings to the north were more rural.
Now the sounds of an asphalt-crushing plant grinds in the distance, and an odor like jet fuel lingers in the air.
For some locals, a jail might be the tipping point.
"I'm not giantly excited," Jensen said. "But a jail is something we need."
The old jail in downtown Bellingham has been outdated for years. Inmates often must sleep on the floors because it's so cramped. The building has a constant need for repairs and guards are put at risk by the aging security system.
In October, rioting inmates ripped off a metal vent from the "crumbling concrete walls," as Elfo put it, of one cellblock, then used the vent to cause several thousand dollars' worth of damage. The cellblock was unusable for weeks.
Lisa McShane, a former co-chair of the jail task force, doesn't dispute the need for a new jail. But she has been a consistent advocate for a complex on the smaller end of the spectrum. She wishes the county had hired a jail planner before sifting through property proposals, rather than doing both concurrently.
"The whole process goes about smoother," McShane said, "when you figure out what you need before you go about getting it."
A total of 11 properties were submitted to the council on Tuesday.
If the county moves forward with DLR, the firm will help determine if the jail should also be used as a new headquarters for the sheriff's office.
SEE THE SITES
PDFs of all the proposed jail sites can be found at whatcomcounty.us/jailsiting/Property_proposals_jail.jsp.