Johnston County Commissioners can expect resistance to their jail plans from Smithfield residents, who found the likely location hard to swallow and weren’t afraid to say so to County Manager Rick Hester.
Hester was on hand when the Town of Smithfield held the last of four community meetings designed to cover the town’s four compass points. The meeting drew about 60 people to the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatics Center, not far from where the county plans to build a new jail.
Also on hand was Sheriff Steve Bizzell, who sought to allay fears that the new jail would a prison surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire.
“It would not be a prison camp, so to speak,” Bizzell said. “That’s not the case, folks.”
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Instead, county government plans to eventually move most of its departments to the 68-acre tract on Buffalo Road near Booker Dairy Road.
But Bizzell’s words did little to reassure Dr. Debbie Tetreault, who owns a pediatrics practice near the proposed jail. Also nearby are Smithfield-Selma High School, Neuse Charter School, Smithfield Community Park, the SRAC and Smithfield Middle School.
“My concern is building this facility near the biggest concentration of children in Johnston County,” Tetreault said. “You’ve got three schools within walking distance, a pediatric center, a community park, a recreation center. I’m sure it will be very safe and protected … but my concern also is I’m worried about the reputation of Johnston County schools.”
Bizzell said the county’s jail mostly holds inmates awaiting trial. Those who are convicted, especially those guilty of violent crimes, are then transferred to a state prison, the sheriff said.
Bizzell said his aim was to keep some jail cells in the downtown courthouse for defendants charged with violent crimes. “We’d keep the murderers and the rapists housed downtown,” he said.
Tetreault said if she were new to the area and considering moving to Smithfield, a jail near the schools might give her pause.
Dale Ham said he was concerned the town and county might be taking away Smithfield’s only chance for growth. Booker Dairy Road has acres of farmland and easy access to U.S. 70.
“We can only really growth north,” Ham said. “Smithfield is where I grew up. … We’re seeing all the towns in the county growing except for ours.”
Ham also faulted the county for removing the 68-acre tract from the tax roles. “Where will that help Smithfield?” he asked.
Tucker Twisdale shared the concerns voiced by Ham and Tetreault.
“Smithfield has at this point nowhere to grow except north,” she said. “I think that the location that is being proposed would be detrimental to the development of our (school system’s) reputation.”
Twisdale said the land would serve Smithfield better if it remained a source of property-tax revenue. “The county needs to address other possible locations,” she said. “I haven’t heard any mention except the landfill, and I think other properties could be considered.”
Hester said the county looked at seven or eight other properties within a three-mile radius of downtown, including land it owns near the landfill.
But the county wants to keep the landfill property just that – property to put trash on “for the next 85 years,” Hester said.
The county also considered adding on to the existing courthouse, but that could have meant closing part of Johnston Street, Hester said. “We ruled that out,” he said.
The land on Booker Dairy Road allows county government to remain in Smithfield, which many town residents have said they want, Hester said.
The county is already working with an architect, and Hester showed the audience photos and drawings of other public buildings the firm has done. None looked like a prison camp.
Susan Augustyn said she’s lived in Smithfield for about two years. She was upset that the county had not let residents know of its jail plans.
“Surely some notices should be sent out to residents when you’re spending $1.5 million,” she said. “It looks like you’ve gone to an architect already without traffic studies or environmental- or economic-impact statements … It just seems we’re rushing here.”
Augustyn said she moved to the area to be near her grandchildren and was concerned about their safety. “This is a difficult thing to put in the middle of the schools and the recreation center,” she said. “It seems like really bad business.”
Hester said the county would hold public meetings on further plans for the public-safety complex, including its design. He said design alone could take a year or more, and he didn’t expect construction to begin until 2020.
Hester said the county wants the design of the public-safety complex “to be a very open process” and that the goal was to create something very professional that people are proud of.”
The land is within Smithfield’s planning jurisdiction, meaning the town will determine if the county can move forward with its jail plans.
Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett