Orange County will buy land on U.S. 70 this week to build a $28.1 million campus for its new jail, agricultural center and parks operations office.
Plans for the Northern Campus will be designed later this year, with construction expected to start by late 2019. The new, 144-bed Orange County Detention Center, which is expected to cost roughly $21 million, could open in 2021.
County documents show the parks office is slated to cost $2.6 million and the agricultural center about $4.5 million.
The Orange County Board of Commissioners approved moving forward Tuesday, following a March 26 decision by the Hillsborough Town Board to rezone the rural agricultural site for more suburban, office and business development.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Both governments must approve the plan since the site is in the county but in Hillsborough's planning jurisdiction. The town's Planning Board had unanimously opposed the site, which lies just west of the town limits.
The county will pay the owners $394,050 for the 21 acres, which Hillsborough could annex in the future.
Although Commissioner Earl McKee joined the board in voting to buy the site, he pledged to seek a way to delay the new agricultural and parks operations centers.
"I totally support the need for a detention center," McKee said. "I, as you are aware, have had concerns over the need for another ag center or for office buildings considering our budget constraints."
The board could consider during its budget discussion whether to delay some of the projects, County Manager Bonnie Hammersley said, but because of the cost, it would be more economical to build all three projects at once.
The board also addressed public concerns about public safety and the project's impact on property values, economic development, private wells and livestock. More than 1,000 people signed a petition opposing the plan.
Billy Holloway, who lives within 100 feet of the site, has serious concerns about how construction might disrupt their lives.
"I would just like to make it public notice that I'm retired, my wife’s retired," Holloway said. "Some mornings, we like to sleep till 8 o'clock in the morning. Construction's going to start at 6:30, there's going to be vibrations, there's going to be all kinds of noise. Can some kind of barrier be put up?"
County staff should find a way to reduce the project's effect on neighbors, particularly during construction, Commissioner Mark Marcoplos said. He also suggested the county set aside money to deal with any well or other problems created by blasting at the site.
The county also will hold a public information meeting every quarter to talk with residents and address any issues as soon as possible, Commissioner Barry Jacobs said. Commissioner Penny Rich suggested also updating the county website with any new information.
County staff chose the U.S. 70 site after weighing several alternatives, including the current jail site, the Sheriff's Office parking lot, and two county-owned parcels 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, officials said.
The deal for a preferred site — state-owned land at South Churton Street and Interstate 85 — fell apart last year, because the state wouldn't cede control of the land. That made it nearly impossible to finance the construction, county officials said.
The county needs a new detention center, Sheriff Charles Blackwood has said, and the site is convenient for deputies shuttling inmates to the courthouse downtown. The current jail, built near the courthouse in 1925, has serious challenges and is at risk of being declared out of compliance and unsafe for occupancy, he said.
"I tell you, folks, when you come in to take a tour of the facility, that one, I'm not proud of it. Two, that it's not reflective of who we are in this county," Blackwood said. But the jail employees have "got their heads up, they're looking in the right direction, their interactions with the inmates are positive. The inmates are looking up."
Change can be difficult and people are worried, but the new detention center is "a necessary evil for a civil society," Blackwood said. "There's hope in (the current) building, and we want to bring more hope to those folks that have to be there, both in front of the bars and the folks behind the bars," he said.