The Johnston County Board of Commissioners has secured a $1.56 million option on a piece of land just outside of Smithfield for a new jail.
The 68-acre tract, owned by businessman Frank Lee, sits on Buffalo Road near its intersection with the M. Durwood Stephenson Highway. It’s a stone’s throw from Smithfield Community Park and Smithfield-Selma High School.
A divided board approved the land deal on a 4-3 vote after a closed session earlier this month. Commissioners Tony Braswell, DeVan Barbour, Chad Stewart and Cookie Pope voted in favor of optioning the land, while commissioners Ted Godwin, Allen Mims and Jeff Carver said no. Barbour, who’s retiring from the board, works for Lee.
The board of commissioners will look different next month and function even differently with the departure of its leadership, chairman Braswell and vice chairman Barbour. But despite the impending change, Braswell said the land deal was too good to pass on.
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“We began looking at property eight or nine months ago and had as many as eight sites that would serve the county well as a jail,” Braswell said. “We eliminated half the sites, took the recommendation of staff and the sheriff, went through the pluses and minuses. This is an ideal location.”
Johnston County’s jail is notoriously overcrowded, Braswell said, currently holding 40 inmates beyond its intended capacity. Johnston is also paying Sampson County to take on some of its prisoners and has a cashed-check agreement with the federal government to house up to 60 federal prisoners. It’s an agreement Braswell fears the county couldn’t honor.
Braswell noted that the property would be more than a jail, offering extra room for the sheriff’s office and freeing up space downtown for more courtrooms.
“It’s a safety issue and all sorts of other issues – crowded cells, cots on the floors,” Braswell said. “We absolutely have to do it now; we have no choice.”
Over the next couple of decades, Barbour said, the county plans to consolidate its operations at the Buffalo Road site, adding not just the jail and sheriff’s office but county administration, 911 and the Department of Social Services, essentially everything but the judiciary. He said the site was “far and away” the best one considered.
“We’ve obviously outgrown the courthouse, and over the years, with the emphasis on building schools and other things, we’ve not been able to deal with all of the county’s needs,” Barbour said. “We’ve been trying to do this for a long time now, to look long term and consolidate on a site like this. It was important the site be located in the county seat and suitable to relocate other services down the road.”
Though he works for property owner Lee, Barbour said he saw no conflict of interest in his vote for the land option. Without his vote, the board would have deadlocked 3-3 on the deal for his boss’ land.
“To recuse yourself, you have to have a conflict of interest, and I have no financial interest in this land whatsoever,” Barbour said. “I am obligated to vote on issues when there is no conflict of interest. I understand what the appearance could be, but I checked with the county attorney and made sure there was no problem. It’s easy to recuse yourself to make it clean, but sometimes you have to make decisions that are very difficult.”
Barbour noted that the county will pay Lee less money for the land than the $1.83 million he paid for it in 2008.
County Attorney Jennifer Slusser said Barbour crossed no legal or ethical line. “County board members generally have a duty to vote,” she said in a text message. “The exceptions include when a board member derives a direct benefit under a contract or has a financial interest in the matter before the board.”
That’s not the case with Barbour, Slusser said. “To be best of my knowledge, Commissioner Barbour will derive no direct financial benefit from the acquisition contract, nor does he have a financial interest in matter,” she said. “Personal or business relationships aren’t generally grounds for being excused from voting.”
Despite the split vote, the necessity of the public safety center wasn’t the question. Those against the deal cited cost as their main objection, saying the $1.56 million price tag – or $23,000 an acre – was too high.
“I wasn’t comfortable with the price being today’s market value, especially since we have land already bought and paid for at $8,000 an acre,” Mims said, referencing land near the landfill where a previous board pledged to build the jail. “The price difference could be applied toward construction cost. Not to mention depending on others for rezoning, their development standards and the number of nearby schools.”
Godwin said he didn’t have a problem with the site on Buffalo Road, not even a half-mile from the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatic Center. To him, the price is simply too high.
“This is a very desirable, highly developable piece of land,” Godwin said. “The community would be better served by commercial development on this site.”
“I just think there are better sites; there’s one on Highway 210 that’s not nearly as expensive,” he added.
As far as public land buys go, Godwin and Mims are right, $23,000 an acre is on the high end. The last county property purchase was for the new Norris Road Middle School in the Cleveland community, where it paid $688,500 for 44 acres, or $15,647 an acre.
Commissioner Stewart said any comparison to the school system was unfair because the schools typically buy land in more rural parts of the county, and Johnston wanted to stay near Smithfield for its new jail.
“The whole deal is we wanted to build a public safety complex in Smithfield’s (extraterritorial jurisdiction) and keep courtrooms in downtown Smithfield, ” Stewart said. “We needed that amount of land, about 30 to 40 acres, and we found a 70-acre tract where we project growth. It’s just a real good piece of land, very buildable, with not a lot of wetland wasted in the purchase. We didn’t really have another one to compare it to.”
Stewart acknowledged that price was the “bear in the room” but said this site fit what the county was looking for.
“That is a lot of money to pay for land,” Stewart said. “But it allows us to stay in the ETJ of Smithfield and build a complex; this will be a public safety, complex not just a jail. ... It’s a hard bullet to bite, but you don’t find what you’re looking for every day.”
Braswell said the jail site would be subject to rezoning by the Smithfield Town Council, and he predicted 18 months of construction time, putting the opening of the new jail well into the future.