Two weeks ago, the Prison Relocation Commission heard an initial report from the consulting firm Louis Berger which outlined six possible locations for a future state prison site. On Monday, lawmakers cut the possible number of locations down to three.
Two of the six potential sites turned out to be dead on arrival. The current landowners from both the South Valley site and the Northwest Utah Valley site pulled their initial offers to sell the land to the state for a future prison. Currently, the commission has staid that it only wants to build on land property owners are willing to sell, avoiding the more costly eminent domain option, where the state takes the land by force and compensates the land owner at fair market value.
The third plot that was removed from consideration was the Airport North location. Though the site offered superb infrastructure access, concerns about construction on and around wetlands ultimately scuttled the location which would have been just west of I-215. In addition, analysts noted that flight patterns at the nearby Salt Lake City International Airport could interfere with the ability for communication between personnel.
After Monday, Salt Lake, Tooele, and Utah Counties each have one potential site still in the running.
According to the grading criteria set forth in the Louis Berger report, the new frontrunner is the so-called I-80/7200 West location in Salt Lake County. This location has the largest property footprint, and provides easy access to state and federal courts, health care, current staff and volunteer bases, and no particularly burdensome infrastructure costs. Despite these various features, the location is actually the most removed from major population centers, with the closest residential location sitting almost three miles away.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker expressed concern that this site, as well as the now rejected Airport North location, could cause potential problems in the event that the Great Salt Lake floods again. But experts rebutted that the topography was above the floodplain, and unless a flood is more massive than what has been seen before, should pose no threat to infrastructure. Senator Jerry Stevenson (Republican – Layton) joked that it wouldn’t be a problem “even during a tsunami,” a dig at Mayor Beckers’ warning that a large enough earthquake could cause a wall of water to come crashing down at the location.
Next on the list is the Lake Mountains West location, which sits on a large plot of land approximately two miles due south of Eagle Mountain. This location featured no potential environmental concerns, which would reduce construction costs. The site is the most out of the way, with no major highway or state road easily servicing the location—which could work both for and against the site. With access to government and medical facilities reduced, the location may be a hard sell to policy makers. However, with a rural residential population nearby, it is likely that policymakers will encounter protests to the location.
Last on the list is the SR112/Depot Boundary location, which sits just east of the Miller Motorsports Park. Infrastructure will prove to be the most difficult aspect of the site, with needed upgrades to utilities. Furthermore, a small municipal airport sits north of the site, so care would need to be made to ensure that development does not cause concern for the small aircrafts. The location, however, would provide relatively easy access to medical facilities if necessary.
Incoming Speaker-elect of the House, Representative Greg Hughes (Republican – Draper), who’s district houses the current prison, used the meeting to express some frustrations about the protesters opposing any prison move to a new location—who packed the meeting to standing-room-only. “I would ask all of us…that we apply the golden rule.” He added that “if [committee members] see signs that say ‘keep it in Draper,’ I can conclude that population base must not be a concern to those people. Or that economic development, or the loss of the opportunity for economic development, would not be a concern to someone that would like to see the prison remain where it is – because those are the same words that I think I have heard from many communities on how we are moving forward.” He also reemphasized that he feels the simple “not in my backyard” argument is disingenuous to the debate.
Hughes would also acknowledge that most state purchases of land and construction of facilities don’t have this same level of public input, but that the moving of a prison is a complex and passionate topic.
The Speaker-elect also seemed to issue an ultimatum to the crowd, saying that “if we were to decide that this was just too hard to do [politically]…just know this, you have not decided not to move a prison, you’ve decided to revert back to what the process would look like without the Prison Relocation Commission…We don’t want that”—possibly meaning that if the public refuses to support efforts to move the prison out of Draper, the legislature might act on its own to do so. He would quickly add that he thought that it was good that the commission exists and that he supports the process as is, noting that public input was vital to the process.
Hughes, no doubt, felt compelled to make the comments after approximately 100 protesters packed the committee room asking that the prison remain in Draper. During the hearing itself, tensions sometimes bubbled to the surface—for instance, during the presentation of the disadvantages of the Tooele location, a member of the audience broke decorum rules by shouting that there was no water at at the location.
Representative Brad Wilson (Republican – Kaysville) said in a prepared statement that keeping the state prison where it currently stands isn’t a free option. According to Wilson, if the prison were to move, $1.8 billion in economic growth and 30,000 new jobs could be created based on conservative estimates.
Wilson would also add that the current facility has grown organically over the past 70 years, resulting in inefficiencies and redundancies that cost the state and do a disservice to both prison staff and inmates. Wilson pointed to waiting lists for vocational training, designed to reduce recidivism, as a prime example of how the state can modernize corrections at a new facility.
Finally, it was also noted that 3,000 new beds need to be added to the state’s prison system, which will cost $783 million in new construction and maintenance.
The Commission would close by settling on moving into the next phase of the process, receiving public comment on the three remaining locations. The committee also noted that it would consider other possible locations if property owners were willing to step forward.