Chapel Hill News

State lease limits put new Orange County jail on hold

Travis Myren
Travis Myren

Design work for the county’s planned $21 million jail is on hold until a land lease with the state can be revised, officials said.

The county talked about replacing the county jail for several years and signed a 50-year lease in 2012 for 6.8 acres at the southeastern corner of Interstate 85 and Old N.C. 86 in Hillsborough. The lease – at a rate of $1 a year – was finalized in 2013, starting a five-year construction deadline.

The county hired Moseley Architects last fall to design the 144-bed detention facility. The plan was supposed to return to the Orange County Board of Commissioners this spring for approval; construction would have started this year. The opening was on track for 2019.

But the lease terms have hindered county efforts to get a construction loan using the jail as collateral. Revising the lease to put the land under the county’s control would give the bank more certainty that the county can maintain the collateral, Deputy County Manager Travis Myren said.

“At the time that this collateralization issue was raised, I don’t think anyone suspected that there were a couple of different routes that could have been taken,” he said. “One of them was negotiating with the departments that are in charge of managing and creating (state) leases. When it became obvious that those administrators weren’t going to amend the terms themselves, then the local (legislative) bill became an option for doing the amendment.”

Sen. Valerie Foushee, an Orange County Democrat, is working with Republican lawmakers to get that local bill approved during the legislature’s current short session. It would:

▪ Create a leasehold deed of trust for up to 40 years. The county would control the land, giving more weight to a loan application using the jail as collateral

▪ Let the state take back the land if the county defaults on the loan

▪ Extend the construction start and completion dates by 18 months

Foushee said recently she’s concerned the commissioners may have complicated those negotiations by talking publicly about them before approving a local resolution challenging House Bill 2. The state law requires transgender people to use the restroom aligned with their gender at birth, among other provisions.

The next chance to present the bill to lawmakers would be during the 2017 regular session. The board hasn’t talked about what happens if the lease expires, said Commissioner Barry Jacobs, co-chair of the county’s Jail Alternatives Workgroup.

One possibility is pairing the facility with another county construction project, and using that building as collateral for the loan. Chapel Hill used a similar method to fund work on Town Hall and around town, using the Town Hall building as collateral.

The county also could find a different site, although none have been identified, Jacobs said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Construction plans

The county’s new 144-bed detention facility would replace a 138-bed jail built in downtown Hillsborough in 1925. The jail has been renovated several times but has ongoing maintenance issues and is often overcrowded. It houses local offenders but also averaged 50 federal inmates awaiting trial last year.

The U.S. Marshals Office paid $1.2 million, or $66 a day, for each federal inmate last year. The county could get $100 a day next year.

The detention facility could be a “blended” model with pods around a central control room, dayrooms and dorm-like areas. Modular, steel cells welded in place could hold up to two inmates each. A future, 250-bed expansion is possible, but the county’s goal is to offer alternatives to jail.

“It’s to sort through the people who have mental health problems, substance abuse problems, homelessness problems, and give them some opportunities and see if we can keep them out of the system with guidance and jobs and place to live,” Commissioner Barry Jacobs said.