Environmental review begins for new jail in Ferndale

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 8, 2013 

JAIL ISSUE

Inmates of the Whatcom County Jail deal with overcrowding July 27, 2011 in Bellingham. Whatcom County officials are looking at a 40-acre site in Ferndale to site a new, larger facility.

ANDY BRONSON — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

FERNDALE - Whatcom County officials have only one property in mind for a new jail. The county would purchase the 40 acres on the northwest corner of LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue by early December, Executive Jack Louws said, if it passes an environmental review that began Tuesday, May 7.

Comments on the scope of the review will be accepted through Thursday, May 30. The review, called an environmental impact study, is required to list only significant impacts.

"We want to hear from the public what their concerns might be related to the building of a correctional facility on this site," Louws said.

The new jail would include up to 660 beds in Phase 1 and would also house the Sheriff's Office. The jail is scheduled to open in 2017, barring delays.

A Jail Planning Task Force reported in April 2012 the need for a new jail was "critical." The current jail is a safety risk with high maintenance costs, the task force said. And with a capacity of 470 inmates, the jail adjacent to the county courthouse is overcrowded.

A second proposed site, a 155-acre property west of Bellingham International Airport owned by the Department of Natural Resources, was eliminated from consideration, Louws said on April 25. The property had too much sensitive habitat and no public utilities, Louws said.

The environmental review will go into more depth, but a "first-blush look" at the Ferndale property indicated nothing that would make the site unusable, Louws said.

"This is the only site that in my mind has the only viable chance of being the correct one," he said.

The county signed a purchase and sale agreement with the property's owner that gives the county the sole right to buy the property through early December, Louws said.

Ferndale is reviewing its rules relating to siting a jail. The city cannot refuse a jail, given that it is an "essential public facility." Community Development Director Jori Burnett said the planning commission and the city council may opt for design requirements that prevent the county from building an old-style jail with watchtowers and searchlights.

"Modern jails can look much more like college campuses than they do traditional jails," a Ferndale staff memo said.

Sheriff Bill Elfo has said the county intends to build a contemporary jail compatible with what Ferndale officials have in mind.

"It will look like an office building and be pretty innocuous in appearance," Elfo said in March.


HOW TO COMMENT

Write to NewJail@whatcomcounty.us or Michael Russell, Whatcom County Facilities Management, 316 Lottie St., Bellingham, WA 98225.

Attend the meeting, 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 16, at Horizon Middle School, 2671 Thornton Road, Ferndale. Doors open at 6 p.m.

Learn more at a joint meeting of the Ferndale City Council and Planning Commission, 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 22, at WECU, 5659 Barrett Road.

MORE INFORMATION

City of Ferndale's webpage on jail site.

Whatcom County webpage on jail site.


MAP OF PROPOSED JAIL SITE


View Proposed site for Whatcom County Jail in a larger map

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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