The fate of Johnston County’s proposed public safety complex on Buffalo Road likely rests with the Smithfield Town Council, despite two new faces on the Johnston County Board of Commissioners and considerable public outcry.
In November, commissioners voted 4-3 to put a $1.56 million option on a 68-acre tract for a county jail and public safety center. Retirements and the November election meant new commissioners Keith Branch and Larry Wood would replace the yes votes of DeVan Barbour and Tony Braswell. But as far as Branch and Wood are concerned, the jail site is a done deal.
“I understand there have been concerns voiced, but it’s hard for me to really agree or disagree because I was not involved in the year-long process to choose a location,” said Branch, a former Johnston County school board member.
“I personally have heartburn going into a board and changing something decided by a previous board,” he added. “That to me is not the way you do things. It’s not ethical. ... I wouldn’t want that to happen to a decision made on the school board that I just left. I think the commissioners are through with it and it’s up to the Town of Smithfield to deal with it.”
Wood felt the same, saying the previous board’s decision is something the county doesn’t need to revisit.
Neither Branch nor Wood offered their feelings on the Buffalo Road site. Critics have been more forthcoming, saying a jail is not the best use for the land and that it would reflect poorly on the perception of nearby Smithfield-Selma High School.
“I’m more eager to see what the Town of Smithfield wants to do as a body,” Wood said. “If they decide that’s where they want it, then we’ll go forward. If not, then I guess we’ll tear it up. Having not been involved in what’s already been done or discussed, it makes it difficult to change what is already in place.”
The Buffalo Road land lies outside of the Smithfield town limits but inside the town’s planning jurisdiction, meaning the council controls how the land is used. To build a jail and administrative complex on the land, the county would need to ask Smithfield to rezone it, effectively giving the town veto power over the project.
Commissioner Chad Stewart was among the four votes in favor of the site, joining Barbour, Braswell and Commissioner Cookie Pope. He said he stands by his November decision as the right one for him based on the board’s research and consideration of other sites. But now that he’s heard the Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce lead a charge against the site for the jail, Stewart said he’s willing to reconsider.
“When I made my decision, based on the the information I had at the time and a year’s worth of research, and wanting to keep the jail in Smithfield, quite frankly (the Buffalo Road site) was the only choice that I had,” Stewart said. “Now with the chambers and Realtors weighing in with their own plans for the location, that’s information I wasn’t privy to at the time. Maybe it’s not the best site (for the public safety center). But I will always act in the best interests of the county. The county and town are going to work together good to get a resolution at some point, but as I see it, (the board of commissioners) doesn’t have another decision to make.”
Opponents of the proposed jail site have argued the project would dash any chances of commercial and residential growth in that area of Smithfield. Stewart said he’s heard the criticisms in emails and phone calls, but he said moving the county’s offices out to the mostly undeveloped part of Buffalo Road would surely spur other growth.
“The latest numbers I’ve heard on this complex is $40-50 million,” Stewart said. “I don’t see how building a $40-50 million project doesn’t help spur growth.”
A “no” vote on the jail site, Commissioner Jeff Carver now sits at the head of the board’s table. He said he’s yet to see the paperwork for the land option but plans to sign it when he does. Though he thinks the land is too expensive, Carver said he’s unaware of any momentum or interest on the board of commissioners to revisit its decision.
“The handwriting seemed to be somewhat on the walls,” he said.
Carver said other sites that were under consideration had their issues. The Lampe family offered land it owns on Buffalo Road, but half of that tract is in a flood plain, Carver said. Another site close to Interstate 95 and the railroad tracks could be a hazard if a train wrecked.
“This has been somewhat divisive on our board, but it’s not the first time we’ve had a 4-3 split and won’t be the last time,” Carver said. “I’m eager to move forward and get to work this year. This last one has been kind of a rocky road for us at times.”
County Manager Rick Hester said that in addition to the proposed site and the Lampe land, the county considered nine other possibilities: adding on to the existing courthouse downtown, building on county-owned land near the landfill, land near the intersection of highways 70 and 210, property on Wilson’s Mills Road, property on Durwood Stephenson Road, land on Brogden Road between U.S. 301 and I-95, land on Whitley Farm Road and land on Old Dupree Road.
Both Branch and Commissioner Ted Godwin, another “no” vote, attended a Smithfield Town Council meeting last month that citizens used as a de facto public hearing on the jail site. Godwin echoed the Smithfield chamber’s assessment of the jail as not the “highest and best use” of the land. Like Carver, he said he doesn’t foresee the board revisiting its decision, though he would once again support a different site.
“I think it can be done better and cheaper somewhere else, but I don’t want to be a stumbling block for progress if the rest of the board doesn’t feel that way,” Godwin said. “If the majority of the board is willing to revisit it, I’m very much open to that.”