A controversial site on U.S. 70 just west of town is closer to housing Orange County's new 144-bed jail, agricultural center and park operations.
The county hasn't submitted an official plan for its northern campus yet, but it has asked the Hillsborough Town Board to rezone the rural agricultural site to allow more suburban, office and business development.
Families who live around the 21-acre site and others who oppose the county's plan are worried about safety risks and the impact on property values, economic development, private wells and livestock, among other concerns.
The Town Board held a public hearing in February and approved the county's request in less than 25 minutes Monday; board member Jennifer Weaver was absent. The town's Planning Board had unanimously opposed the move.
The decision lets the county apply for a permit, which the Town Board and the Orange County Board of Commissioners will have to approve. The site is in the county but in Hillsborough's planning jurisdiction.
Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens said the county and the Sheriff's Office supplied all of the information needed to make a decision.
The site isn't perfect, Sheriff Charles Blackwood has said, but it would provide a much-needed new jail and save deputies time shuttling inmates to the Orange County Courthouse in downtown Hillsborough.
The current jail, built in 1925, is at risk of being declared out of compliance and unsafe for occupancy, he said.
The county looked at several sites, including the current jail, the Sheriff's Office parking lot, and two county-owned parcels on N.C. 86, north of town. All were rejected for reasons including additional cost, limited space and the effect on other court and public facilities, and the availability of water and sewer.
The best site would be state-owned land at South Churton Street and Interstate 85, town and county officials said, but that deal fell apart last year, because the state wouldn't cede control of the land. That made it nearly impossible to finance the construction, they said.
'Could be an asset'
While acknowledging the public's concerns, Stevens said the town’s experience with the existing jail does not suggest the new one would be an overwhelming burden to neighbors.
“I think there’s not a person in this room … who would not rather see a farm than see some kinds of office buildings or a jail or something, but … it seems like it could be an asset,” Stevens said.
His comment prompted derisive snorts and laughter from the Holloway and Hall families, who live around the site. Jennifer Hall, who lives across U.S. 70, has gathered over 1,000 signatures on a petition opposing the plan.
However, their aunts Betsey Tilley and Mary Copeland have said they want to accept the county's offer of $394,000 for their land.
Three family members walked out Monday as board member Brian Lowen said the decision hasn’t been as difficult for him as previous decisions. One cousin held high a meeting agenda, crumpling it loudly in her fist, as she left.
No one wants to see a jail anywhere, Lowen said, but the county and the board don't have a lot of options. It's his hope the county’s plan could launch growth and development that cleans up the corridor, he said.
“I can’t say for sure that this would do this, but I do think it would be a start,” Lowen said, “and we would begin to see that moving down past Fairview Baptist Church and going into the core of the town limits on Cornelius Street would go a long way.”
Part of the Cornelius Street corridor was identified as a gateway between the town’s rural edges and future development, board member Kathleen Ferguson said. The possibility of an agricultural and event center on the site is exciting, she said, noting the current jail hasn’t affected the public’s enjoyment of festivals and other downtown events.
“It’s something that for me … is balancing family, heartfelt concerns, with what I feel is best for the community,” Ferguson said. “My heart goes out to the family, but in the end, I do believe this is the best decision for the community in the long run.”
Billy Holloway, who raises a small herd of cattle and lives just yards from the site, spoke to the board after the vote.
“Y’all came in here with your minds made up before you ever came in here,” he said. “This will affect me. I live right beside of it. I’m going to have to get up and look out my window at the side of a building every morning. I hope y’all are satisfied.”