Residents of a southeast Provo neighborhood did what most people think is impossible. They got government leaders to change a plan that appeared to be set in concrete.
When Utah County announced plans a couple months ago to build a new jail about 300 yards north of the current jail, neighbors protested to commissioners and Provo City officials. The county responded by looking at other possible sites. Provo responded by passing a zoning ordinance amendment that will require 1,200 feet between jails and churches, homes, parks and schools. That was only slightly less than the 1,500-foot limit neighbors asked for.Provo wants the county to build on the old Ironton Steel Mill property. County officials don't want to build on the toxic-waste-infested Ironton property and don't like Provo telling them where to build. As a result, the county called off a $17 million bond issue on November's ballot and decided to look at sites outside Provo.
I admire the efforts of the residents. However, I don't buy their reasoning.
Residents say a new jail would lower their property values. If the residents think a jail is such a bad thing and will hurt their property values, why did they purchase homes there in the first place? The jail was there long before the homes. The land around the jail was zoned for a new jail long before the residents showed up.
The homeowners say a jail is a threat to their safety. Only a couple of inmates have escaped from the jail in the past 10 years and none has fled to nearby homes. The proposed jail would be much more secure than the existing facility, with officials saying it would be 99.999 percent escape-proof. And when inmates are released, they don't run to the nearest house to commit a crime. Also, the jail does not house murderers or long-term prisoners.
Residents say a new jail would affect their quality of life. A new, more attractive and more secure jail could do nothing but improve their quality of life.
A report prepared by the Provo City Planning Commission calls these fears unwarranted. However, the reports says the fears could have a self-fulfilling prophecy effect, and that's why the commission approved the zoning ordinance amendment.
By passing the amendment, Provo is taking a stand against jails that is different from the way most cities react. Salt Lake County's jail is located in downtown Salt Lake City, across the street from City Hall. Weber County's jail is located in downtown Ogden. Neither has negatively impacted the area around them.
Cities have to deal with the NIMBY syndrome so much it surprises me to see a city take sides with the NIMBYRODS (Not In My Back Yard Regulations, Ordinances and Demands Society.) The amendment not only sets a bad political precedent, but it could be illegal if it prevents the county from building in Provo. And why do Provo officials think a jail within 1,200 feet of a home in Provo is not OK but want the county to build adjacent to a home in Springville?
Provo Police Chief Swen Nielsen can't be too happy about the prospects of a jail outside Provo. The majority of prisoners housed at the jail come from Provo and it would be an added expense to the city to transport them back and forth from a jail in Lindon, Spanish Fork or Orem.
Delaying construction of a new jail likely will increase the price tag at least $1 million through inflation alone. Land costs, bringing in utilities and higher interest rates could also increase the final bill.
There's also a good chance the neighbors' and city's efforts may backfire. If the bond election fails when the county finally holds one, and the courts order the county to build a jail, it will likely be next to the current facility - but at a much higher price tag than the one that would have been on November's ballot.
Hopefully, the jail will end up being built in a better place. But there's a chance the neighbors' efforts may cost all 270,000 residents of Utah County in the end.
(Jim Rayburn, Springville, is a staff writer in the Deseret News' Utah County bureau.)