Residents asked to comment on Whatcom County Jail proposal at Ferndale meeting

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 25, 2013 

FERNDALE - If Whatcom County builds a $109 million jail on 40 undeveloped acres on the south side of the city, the neighborhood will have more traffic, increased glare from parking-lot lights and less wildlife habitat. It will need better water and sewer systems, according to a study.

Members of the public may speak on the impacts the project will have on the city at a meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26, at Ferndale City Council chambers, 5694 Second Ave. The public is asked to comment on a 473-page environmental impact statement, more than half of which is a study of the vehicle traffic that would be created by the combined jail and sheriff's office.

The facilities would generate 911 new vehicle trips in the neighborhood every day, the traffic study said. Eventually, roundabouts would be needed at intersections on Slater Road to better handle the traffic, according to the study.

Phase 1 of the jail would have 521 inmate beds, with 128 more possibly needed by 2026. The environmental study supposes 660 beds and 91 jail staff - in addition to more than 100 other employees working in the sheriff's building.

The existing jail facilities in Bellingham have a capacity of 390. People being held on lesser charges often are released because of space constraints.

A companion study of fiscal impacts said Ferndale would get an estimated $617,500 in sales and real-estate tax money from the construction of the jail, followed by a small but steady stream of sales tax from purchases that keep up the jail operations.

Glenn Stewart, perhaps the jail's most outspoken critic, questioned some of the studies' conclusions in a post on his Facebook page, No Jail in Ferndale.

Stewart has criticized the plan for offering no alternatives to the Ferndale location, at LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue. The study proposes three options: two different building configurations on the Ferndale property, and a "no action" alternative in which the county continues to use the jail at the county courthouse and the work center on Division Street.

"Every one of the criteria ... can be found on many other sites that are not within walking distance of an established bedroom community," Stewart wrote on Tuesday, Sept. 24, on Facebook.

The study of fiscal impacts to the city was soft in its conclusions, he added.

"Dozens of times in the report, one finds disclaimer after disclaimer to the effect that very little data exists regarding the impact of facilities-as-proposed upon bedroom communities like Ferndale," Stewart wrote.

Richard Maneval, a former chairman of the now-dormant Whatcom County Law and Justice Council, said the Ferndale site meets a long list of criteria, including a central location and quick access to Interstate 5.

Some people might have sticker shock over the price, Maneval added, but it's less than what he had been telling community groups over the past decade.

And few will debate that a new jail is needed. County Council members said at a Sept. 10 meeting that the current jail was poorly built and has always had maintenance problems.

"It is an expensive project. It's huge," Maneval said of the estimated $109 million cost. "I sometimes ask, 'Can we afford this?' but then I answer this by saying, 'Can we afford not to?'"

SEE JAIL REPORT

Read the environmental report on the new jail at whatcomcounty.us/jailsiting.

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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