Orange County

Another twist in Orange County’s search for a new jail site

Orange County, nearly a year after signing a new lease for state land on Churton Street, is no longer sure where to build its new jail.

The existing jail, across East Margaret Lane from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in downtown Hillsborough, was built in 1925 and has been renovated several times. State inspections show it continues to have heating and air-conditioning problems, and challenges meeting modern fire, safety and cleanliness standards.

The air-conditioning was keeping up as the thermometer neared 100 degrees this week, Chief Deputy Jamison Sykes said. There are multiple systems, he said, and when one breaks down, large fans filter in air from cooler areas.

Inmates typically sleep in bunk beds in open rooms or in individual cells. The average population reached a monthly high of 167 inmates a few years ago, but Sykes said local diversion programs and federal sentencing changes now help them stay near the 129-inmate maximum occupancy.

This week, however, there were 145 inmates, forcing some to sleep on mats on the floor. Most were local people waiting to be tried or serving state sentences; 63 were federal inmates, Sykes said. The U.S. Marshals Office pays Orange County $100 a day to house inmates awaiting federal trial or transfer to a federal facility.

The county has planned for many years to build a modern detention center and has $20 million budgeted for a 144-bed facility with space for classrooms, meetings and future growth.

Officials had planned to build the new jail near Interstate 85 in southern Hillsborough. But they’ve now turned their attention to downtown.

What happened?

In 2013, the county secured a 50-year state lease for the land – 6.8 acres southeast of Interstate 85 and Churton Street.

Last summer, the unfinished plan faced a looming construction deadline, and state Sen. Valerie Foushee worked with Republican lawmakers to negotiate a new, 40-year lease. That lease also kept the land under state control, however, preventing the county from using the new jail as collateral for a construction loan.

The lease also limited a mortgage holder’s options by restricting how the land could be used and by whom if the county defaulted on its loan.

The county unsuccessfully tried to get more control of the land, Deputy County Manager Travis Myren said. They’re now studying how to keep the jail in downtown Hillsborough, either at its current site, or across East Margaret Lane between the Sheriff’s Office and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

A multistory jail is likely, because both sites are limited in size, Myren said, but it could be built to blend into its surroundings. There also are questions about where Sheriff’s Office employees would park if the new jail is built atop the existing lot and how it could affect the Eno River Farmer’s Market and River Park.

The delay has pushed back construction to at least 2019, Myren said.

“The architect will study both sites for feasibility and report back to the commissioners in late October for a siting decision,” he said. “Then we will work with the town on any concerns they may have.”

Margaret Hauth, assistant town manager and planning director, said Hillsborough’s staff is working with the county. Any plan to build a new jail will have to meet downtown design guidelines, go through a staff site review and be approved by the town’s Historic District Commission, she said.

The best solution for the Sheriff’s Office, Sykes said, would be to build the jail in the adjacent parking lot. They’ve already talked with other counties about housing inmates during construction, he said; leasing Wake County’s vacant jail would let them maintain independent operations.

“That is something that’s doable, but logistically, it’s going to be very difficult,” Sykes said. “A lot of transports, and we’d have to coordinate with the court systems, the public defender’s office, the defense attorneys, and try to mitigate the negative impacts, because you’re looking at a 45-minute ride, not factoring in traffic. We would have to move the entire jail staff and all support personnel to Wake County.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb