Whatcom's jail studies to include soil samples, fiscal impact to Ferndale


40-acre proposed site of the Whatcom County Jail on the northwest corner of LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue off Slater Road near Ferndale.


FERNDALE - Whatcom County will pay for a study to find out whether Ferndale will take a financial hit if a new jail is sited in the city's manufacturing zone. The county executive also is calling for soil studies of the jail site, including sampling to check for contamination.

An agreement between the city and the county on a fiscal impact assessment for Ferndale is in the works, according to county Executive Jack Louws and Jori Burnett, Ferndale's community development director.

Louws committed up to $10,000 for the study, an amount that does not require County Council approval.

Council will be asked to approve the soil studies, to be conducted by the county's jail consultant, DLR Group. A geotechnical study of the 40-acre property at the northwest corner of LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue will help determine what type of foundation the building will need, which will refine the estimated construction cost, Louws said.

The consultant also would test the soil along the jail's southwest boundary, because hazardous waste is buried on a two-acre property adjacent to the jail site. Louws wants to determine whether contaminants from the old landfill are leaching into the ground on the jail property.

County officials have some assurance that the hazardous waste is contained. The owner of the contaminated site has presented county officials with a 2003 letter from the Environmental Protection Agency saying "no further action" was needed on the former Superfund site.

Studies by the state Department of Ecology of that property and an adjacent property with a covered ash pit indicate that groundwater drains away from the jail property. The soil sampling is intended to confirm that, Louws said.

A cost estimate for the work to be done on the jail property wasn't available.

The fiscal study for Ferndale and a study of the jail's environmental impacts will be released at the same time, Louws said. County officials have said the environmental study should be completed by early August. That document will guide the public and council as they consider whether the proposed site is suitable for a jail.

The fiscal study will estimate how much property and sales tax Ferndale would lose if a jail is built on the property instead of a private business. If the county buys the land, the city would collect no property tax on it.

Louws and Burnett both said they haven't considered how the county might compensate Ferndale for lost revenue, if that's what the study shows. In general, a county could make a payment to a city or waive certain fees to make up for siting a jail, Burnett said.

"There hasn't been any commitments on the part of the county or of me," Louws said.

The county has until December to buy the property, or it could go back on the market. Barring delays, the jail - with up to 660 beds - would open in 2017.

Maximum capacity of the current jail and separate work center is about 470 inmates.

Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2298.

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