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Only holdup could be
possible wetlands issue
By MARIAN GALBRAITH
Now it’s official.
The Coffee County Commission voted Tuesday to build a new jail.
They not only passed a formal motion to build, but also approved the purchase of the building site on Hillsboro Highway south of Interstate 24, contingent upon final environmental reports regarding wetlands issue.
Commissioner Chris Bird, who chairs the Jail Review Committee, said the preliminary estimate was roughly $19.9 million plus roughly two million more for the land, furniture, fixtures, and architectural fees, but that final numbers would not be determined until after the bidding process.
“This is a first budget, based on about 80 percent of the design; it’s a shotgun number that’s not etched in stone, so it will shift some, up or down,” Bird said.
Commissioner Bobby Brian asked probing questions to ensure the county was not designing a jail above minimum standards, unless going above that would result in long-term cost savings.
Architects responded that they had made efforts to combine required inmate activities, such as education, recreation and meetings, into one room, as well as designing an observation tower with visibility efficient enough to allow only two wardens to watch 200 inmates at a time.
Commissioner Rush Bricken pointed out that a new sheriff’s department was also included in the current jail design and that the existing one could still function where it currently is.
Anne Frisby responded that Sheriff Steve Graves, who was absent due to his mother’s death, had said it would save very little to separate the sheriff’s office from the jail because of transportation costs.
Commissioner Eric Chance, who formerly worked for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), was concerned about wetlands issues and did not agree with the Jail Review Committee and its advisers that the wetlands delineation study had to wait until after the footprint of the building could be located on the property.
“I spoke to TDEC and they said no one had called them,” Chance said. “My concern is that if we buy a property with hydric soils and unknown variables, we could get into a situation like we had with the middle school. I think a preliminary site plan is enough to get a delineation done before we purchase the property.”
He added that remediation cost for disturbing wetlands, if necessary, could cost in the tens of thousands per acre.
After lengthy discussion, the commission passed a motion to purchase the property contingent upon four items, namely, the Jail Review Committee’s approval that site core samples would be acceptable for construction, formal approval by the commission to build a new jail, a formal letter from advisers ensuring that the “areas of disturbance” do not contain wetlands, followed by a letter of concurrence on that opinion from either TDEC or the Corps of Engineers.
Chance was the only “no” vote on the original motion to purchase the land, but the following vote to amend the language with regard to the contingency regarding TDEC and the Corps of Engineers was unanimously approved.
The property was initially described as “formerly owned by Robert George and currently owned by Frank and Rita Henderson,” to dispel past criticisms that the mayor or commissioners had an interest in the property.
The next motion introduced was a formal decision on whether to build a new jail, regardless of the absence of details on final design and cost, and nearly all commissioners agreed there was no other choice.
“This is not something we want, but we don’t have a choice when you look at the alternative,” Commissioner Bobby Bryan said. “Our best option is to build.”
All commissioners voted “yes” with the exception of Warren G. Walker and Steven R. Jones.