No place for a jail
Like many voters and taxpayers in Johnston County, I am concerned with the proposed jail site on Buffalo Road near Smithfield.
To locate the jail anywhere other than next to the courtrooms is to lock taxpayers into transport expenses for years into the future. A larger jail equals more prisoners. More prisoners equal more deputies to be employed for transport rather than patrol. More deputies involved in transport equals more vehicle costs and increased liability for the county as it moves these accused wrongdoers between the jail and courthouse.
In short, every county manager, sheriff and commissioner in the future will be asking taxpayers to fund these transportation costs while these costs could be minimized by increasing the county’s footprint in downtown Smithfield.
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Think about how much less expensive it would be to walk an accused person down a secured corridor or across Johnston Street via a pedestrian walkway to the courthouse. Johnston Street could be closed from Fourth Street to the Hastings House, creating either a one-way traffic corridor or a pedestrian mall where people could park in angled spaces. Or better yet, take the eyesore that is the old Smithfield town hall and build a parking deck to serve the courthouse and downtown businesses.
There are properties for sale in the Johnston Street block, and I imagine the remaining lots could be purchased to provide enough land, especially for a vertically designed and built facility.
Since the late 1980s, when the courthouse was expanded, the county has increased its presence downtown through the Land Use Center, the Johnston County Heritage Center, the Board of Elections relocation and Human Resources relocation. Several of these uses do not necessarily need to be located immediately next to the courthouse. The office building on Market Street across from the Little Brown Jug seems to have vacancies. The Board of Elections and Human Resources could move there and have related parking available. The courthouse and the jail cells are functionally related and require each other’s immediate proximity to perform successfully and efficiently.
A jail on land on Buffalo Road for a jail is probably not the “highest and best use” for this tract. As the Greater Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce has noted, this tract and surrounding acreage could be the next significant residential development area for Smithfield. The area benefits from nearby schools, parks, recreation and shopping. All of these elements point to residential use.
The location of a jail on the property would probably preclude any residential development along Buffalo Road. No perspective homeowners want to live near a jail. If the jail and courthouse were anchors or draws for residential development, then there would have been some homes or residential units built near downtown Smithfield since the courthouse expansion in the late 1980s. What development we have seen is a growth in lawyer and bail bondsmen offices.
The jail works in downtown Smithfield because most of the surrounding properties are businesses or offices that close after 5 o’clock in the afternoon or do not require parking at the same time that the courthouse is busy (i.e. churches on Sunday). The current jail and courthouse site is illuminated around the clock with traffic moving around the building all hours of the night. None of these characteristics are desirable to residential neighbors. Such a facility, no matter where it is built, would cause the same problems for neighboring homeowners or businesses.
If moving the jail from downtown Smithfield is the first step in moving all county government functions from downtown, then please be upfront with the taxpayers and tell us what the plan is for the relocation. If relocation is the plan, then let’s follow the lead of Harnett County and Brunswick County and identify, rate and assess sites near major connecting highways so that all Johnston County citizens can have access. Perhaps land at the junction of U.S. 70 Business and the Clayton bypass would be a more easily accessed site. Perhaps land along Interstate 95 or Interstate 40 would be better situated.
I feel the voters and taxpayers should be entitled to a re-look at the county’s site-selection process and how the Buffalo Road site advanced to the top of the list. Surely there must be some prescribed process for choosing such an important site for both the near future and the long-term future of Johnston County government and maximization of taxpayer dollars.
I urge county commissioners to reconsider before spending significant pre-development dollars on a site that is not suitable for use as a jail. I urge them too to reconsider a development that will lock the county into long-term daily expenses that, through better planning and design, could be avoided entirely.