Billy Holloway understands the need for a new jail, but he’s not sure why Orange County wants to put it next to family farmland and modest neighborhoods off U.S. 70 West.
The highway was just a dirt road when his grandparents farmed a hundred acres there, Holloway said. Now he raises hay and a small herd of Angus cattle for extra income. Next door, his cousin Lisa Hall keeps horses, chickens and a couple of guinea hens, while across the road, other cousins keep bees and cows.
The working farm largely went away when his grandfather died, Holloway said.
“Me and my daddy, he bought some cows, and I bought a few, and we just started raising cows on it,” he said. “That’s something he enjoyed doing, and before he passed away, I always promised, as long as I lived, there’d be cows here.”
Now the county is offering to pay $394,000 for 21 acres that Holloway’s aunts Betsey Tilley and Mary Copeland own next door. The proposed Northern Campus could house the new Orange County Detention Center, plus agricultural and park operations facilities. It lies just outside the Hillsborough town limits but is near water and sewer lines.
The proposed site isn’t perfect, Sheriff Charles Blackwood said, but it would reduce the time that deputies spend shuttling inmates to the Orange County Courthouse in downtown Hillsborough. It also would provide a much-needed replacement for the current jail, built in 1925 near the courthouse.
The existing jail has become more than obsolete since they started talking about it in 2010, creating security concerns, difficulty finding parts for repairs and limited space for inmate services, he said. It’s at risk of being declared out of compliance and unsafe for occupancy by the state.
“The jail is operationally in jeopardy from just age,” Blackwood said.
The next step is asking Hillsborough’s Town Board to rezone the residential lots to “Suburban Office” and Economic Development District, which would allow the county buildings and other, future uses. The town will hold a public hearing Thursday, Feb. 15, in the Town Barn.
It’s not the first land that Orange County considered for a new jail. A state-owned site near the Churton Street and I-85 fell through last year, largely because banks did not want to finance construction on land the county did not control.
The current site and another beside the Sheriff’s Office also didn’t work out, staff said, because of limited space, town concerns about another downtown jail, and the cost, including an extra $5.5 million to house inmates while rebuilding the current jail. The Sheriff’s Office site also conflicted with River Park access and required moving the District Attorney’s Office and market shelter, they said.
A third site on N.C. 86 north of Hillsborough was rejected because of the cost, including roughly $800,000 to extend sewer lines.
County staff did consider other sites, including the motor pool operations facility on N.C. 86 and the adjacent Fairview Park, county spokesman Todd McGee said, but rejected those as being near the Fairview neighborhood, north of U.S. 70. County staff is still studying the identified site, and the commissioners have not made a decision, he added.
“Unfortunately, no perfect site exists for this large of a project,” McGee said. “The site recommended by staff had more advantages than the other sites studied. The county has reached out to the neighboring landowners, and we are continuing to work to mitigate any concerns they might have.”
Tilley said the county contacted her through a real estate agent in September.
“I think it would really, truly be an asset for the area,” Tilley said. “Orange County keeps their property up very nicely, and this is in a location that should not affect the neighbors. There are a lot of trees involved, there’s boundaries of trees, and there’s no house really close.”
A preliminary plan shows the jail several hundred feet from neighboring homes, directly opposite the N.C. Highway Patrol station on U.S. 70. The agricultural building site is at the northeastern corner, with parking lots and parks operations sited closer to the homes on West Hill Avenue.
Holloway isn’t sure they can stop the county and has offered a land swap that would keep the campus from wrapping around his pasture. Meanwhile, others have collected over 900 signatures on a petition opposing the plan.
The biggest concern, Holloway said, is the effect on their livestock, especially if their wells are damaged by any construction blasting. Watering his livestock with 150 to 200 gallons of town water daily would be a huge cost, he said. He and others also worry about public safety, noise, lights and traffic, especially with jail activity around the clock.
“If it was just simple businesses, where people came to work and went home, that’s not so bad,” his cousin Jennifer Hall said.
William Riley, whose mobile home park abuts the site, said the campus should be as far from his tenants and neighbors as possible. An earthen berm and landscaping along the property line could reduce the noise and lights, he said. Others contend it’s just the wrong neighborhood.
Megan Price and Randy Hall said they’ve postponed buying their rental home on Orange Heights Loop, behind the site. The neighborhood of older millhouses is one of the most affordable in Hillsborough, Price said, but she’s not comfortable raising their young daughters next to a jail.
“It’s important for me to stay in Orange County, because of the school system here,” she said. But “I feel like the property value would go down, if there’s a jail right there. All the high traffic. It’s so peaceful and quaint right here, right outside the city limits.”
Blackwood acknowledged the concerns but said people also need to understand the county jail is different from the state-run Orange County Correctional Center on Old N.C. 86. The downtown jail is barely noticeable and hasn’t had any effect on businesses or public life, he said.
“As safe as that facility has been for all these years, this one is going to be more sound, more secure and more aesthetically pleasing, because we know you have to drive by and have to look at it,” he said.