Ferndale residents get chance to comment on rules for building new county jail

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 1, 2013 

Possible Ferndale, Wash. jail site

Whatcom County officials are looking at this 40-acre property at the corner of LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue in Ferndale as the site for a new county jail.

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

FERNDALE - All signs suggest a new jail will be built in the next few years on an undeveloped 40-acre property at LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue. City leaders and residents don't have much of a choice about that.

But on Tuesday, Sept. 3, residents will get one more chance to help the City Council decide how that jail will fit into the neighborhood, a mix of industry and residences. The council will hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. on new rules for the design, construction and operation of a jail. Council could vote on the rules as early as Tuesday after the hearing.

When the code for "essential public facilities," including jails, was originally written about eight years ago, no one in Ferndale could have thought a jail was on the horizon. The jail section of the code was given scant attention at the time, said Community Development Director Jori Burnett.

The update coming before the public and the council on Tuesday includes a new building-height limit for jails (35 feet) and new "setbacks," or distances from property lines to buildings (150 feet, or 600 feet if inmates have a view of a residential neighborhood).

The building design must include enough variety to avoid an institutional appearance. Here, the proposed code borrows from Ferndale's rules for retail areas. Not that the jail is going to resemble Ferndale Station on Main Street - security concerns will trump aesthetics in the design.

Glenn Stewart, perhaps the jail's most outspoken opponent and the founder of the Facebook page "No Jail in Ferndale," said he has problems with the specifics of the proposed code. But more than that, he takes issue with the county's apparently preordained decision to site a jail in Ferndale without proposing alternatives in an environmental impact study due in September.

Sheriff Bill Elfo has said the LaBounty site is the only option being considered.

Stewart recognized that the city can't legally prevent an essential public facility from being built, but he hoped council members would have put up some resistance. The only one who has been outspoken against the jail's location has been Lloyd Zimmerman.

"My energy is going into a 'not in my backyard' effort," Stewart wrote on May 29 on the "No Jail in Ferndale" page. "(Council members) keep saying they have 'no control. ... The law says we can't forbid the jail.' Of course it does. But it does not say they cannot oppose it in the interests of the people they ostensibly represent."

County Executive Jack Louws agreed to pay for an assessment of the jail's fiscal impact on the city, whether good or bad. The county is not committed to compensate Ferndale if the jail ends up being a net loss in taxes and other revenue, Burnett and Louws have said.

The county has until December to exercise an option to buy the LaBounty property. Current plans are to build a 521-inmate jail, with room to expand. That would relieve overcrowding and poor conditions in the two county-run jails in Bellingham.

ATTEND THE MEETING

What: Ferndale City Council hearing on new rules for design and construction of a jail in the city.

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 3

Where: City Council chambers, 5694 Second Ave.

More information: Go to this City of Ferndale webpage and click on "Tuesday, September 3 City Council Agenda."

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

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