Since Johnston County commissioners announced in November that a law-enforcement complex and jail could be coming to Buffalo Road, many residents have told them to look elsewhere.
The land Johnston County optioned for a jail lies near three schools, one of the county’s busiest parks and in an area some residents say could be better used as rooftops.
Still, the county board has shown no interest in abandoning the option, with new commissioners saying they do no want to revisit a past board’s decision. That means the ultimate decision likely lies with the Smithfield Town Council, which has planning authority over the proposed jail site.
Much work remains to be done before the project ends up on Smithfield’s plate; among other things, the county has to determine if the soil is suitable for such a structure.
But residents have already started lobbying the town council, packing the Smithfield meeting room in December and recently starting a petition urging the council not to rezone the land.
Leslie Lazarus started an online petition with two other Smithfield residents, and as of last week, they had collected around 200 signatures opposing the complex on Buffalo Road. The change.org page cited proximity to schools and negative impacts on property values as the main reasons Smithfield should vote it down.
“We don’t think it will help with the economic growth of Smithfield,” Lazarus said in an interview. “It’s too close to three different schools and the rec center. I don’t want to put those children at risk. Of course there’s going to be police there at the facility and you would hope nothing would go wrong, but the worst does happen.”
Supporters and detractors of the proposed jail site have pointed out that the current jail in downtown Smithfield is in a much more densely populated area, near churches and sandwich shops. Yet few people are concerned about that location. Lazarus said the devil you know is better than the one you don’t, and she notes that the jail planned for Buffalo Road will have many more inmates in its care than the current one.
“It’s a lot more responsibility, a lot larger jail and a lot more bodies,” Lazarus said. “A lot more things can go wrong with that. We have a smaller jail down in the courthouse now; it’s not as big of a problem to watch and look over.”
One of the main reasons Johnston County needs the jail and law enforcement complex is to alleviate crowding in the downtown Smithfield jail. Currently, the jail has more inmates than it’s designed for and the courthouse never seems to have enough courtrooms. The proposed law-enforcement complex would begin as a jail, but Johnston would eventually move the Sheriff’s Office and other departments out there.
No one, including Lazarus, is disputing the need for the jail, but she said it’s the wrong spot. Nearly every comment on the petition includes the words “school” or “children.”
“My child attends Neuse Charter School, and I would not feel safe sending her to school with this facility located nearby,” Cara Heater of Smithfield wrote online.
“This needed facility has chosen the wrong setting because it is near three schools and it is unsafe for its student population,” Jaleesa Terry, also from Smithfield, posted to the petition.
Councilman Perry Harris said it would be inappropriate to comment on whether he supports the proposed site right now, because Smithfield hasn’t received any application from the county. That being said, arguments against the site have been overblown, he said, adding that he is in favor first and foremost of keeping jobs in Smithfield.
“I would never vote to deny a request that could lead to jobs leaving Smithfield,” Harris said. “There are 65 jobs that we could lose initially, plus every other job in Smithfield that has to do with the county.”
When county commissioners secured the option on the land, the understanding was that the proposal had enough votes to pass the Smithfield council. Harris said that might or might not have changed following the public response.
The criticisms Harris struggles with are the depiction of the jail as some open-air prison where inmates are openly visible to kids on school buses. He also argues the entire area will be safer given the proximity of the Sheriff’s Office.
“I think it would actually make the place safer,” Harris said. “If there was an active-shooter situation, the police are much closer rather than farther away.”
As for a jail on Buffalo Road being an economic drag on Smithfield, Harris said other factors are at play. As U.S. 70 becomes future Interstate 42, Harris said Buffalo Road will get an exit and become one of the main arteries into Smithfield.
“It will be a major thoroughfare into Smithfield, a four-lane divided highway,” Harris said. “Probably there won’t be residential on the river side anyway. But nobody really knows.”