Pahrump: fight continues against detention center

From the Pahrump Valley Times:

Sep. 18, 2009

Proposed distance from ‘prison’ was redlined by staff

It all began a long time ago.

Jan. 24, 2007 — more than two and a half years ago — the PVT printed on its front page a story titled “Town has no lock on fed prison plan.”

And so what has become a major issue regarding development, revenue, jobs and political viability, got under way.

Over the intervening months, the PVT has been riddled with stories about the detention center, many on the front page and for which it won a number of Nevada Press Association awards in 2008.

But one issue has persisted as a burr under the saddle — the reduction in the minimum distance between a prison, as many insist the detention center is, and the nearest residences.

Nye County commissioners long ago, on April 18, 2007, passed what remains a controversial motion to change the county zoning code and eliminate the minimum distance requirement of 50,000 feet between a correctional institution and residences.

At the time, there was no group like Concerned Citizens for a Safe Community, no anti-prison privatization consultants like Frank Smith of the Private Corrections Institute, and only a couple residents who attended the relevant meetings and spoke up.

Despite ongoing publicity about the detention center, it was a year later, during the summer of 2008, before the code change began to attract significant public attention.

The idea of revising the zoning to allow a correctional facility first came up during a March 9, 2007, county commission meeting held via a conference call, when then County Manager Ron Williams told commissioners a provision in the county code would have to be changed.

At the time, Nye County Code allowed only for a lockup for people already convicted, he said. Williams said the code also required such facilities be at least 50,000 feet, about 9.5 miles, from the nearest residence.

That minimum distance in the county code was enacted after the Pahrump Regional Planning Commission in the late 1990s decided it didn’t want a correctional facility in Pahrump.

At that time, there had been talk of building a prison somewhere in Southern Nevada, Williams told commissioners. Pahrump Valley was sufficiently expansive to include areas where a correctional facility could be built 10 miles from homes, he said.

Williams said if the ordinance wasn’t changed, Nye County could catch flack from some of the companies spending money on surveying land for possible detention center sites.

Commissioner Butch Borasky expressed concerns over the increasing size of the privately-built, federal detention center, which was originally going to be 350 beds, but at the time, there was talk of boosting it to 1,000 beds.

Former Commissioner Peter Liakopoulos and Borasky both talked about trying to situate the facility as far away from town as possible.

The county commission had just backed off from a suggestion to submit Nye County’s own bid to build a federal detention center, after former Commissioner Roberta “Midge” Carver raised concerns over liability.

Williams added Nye County didn’t have the experience to compete with private contractors already established in the industry. It also wouldn’t be a good idea to revise the solicitation for bids by the U.S. Department of Justice to include beds for the county’s own inmates, he said.

On March 23, 2007, county commissioners voted to set an April 18 hearing date for what had become bill 2007-07 that would establish a new community facilities zone that would allow a federal detention center in the zoning code.

It would also dump the minimum distance requirement.

County commissioners were being urged to take action as contractors were required to submit phase one environmental surveys on proposed locations for the detention center by April 30, 2007.

Former Pahrump Town Board Chairman Laurayne Murray talked about the tremendous financial impact from a detention center requiring 200 to 250 jobs, an annual payroll of $9 million and tax payments of $800,000 per year.

She urged commissioners to move quickly in light of competition from other communities for the project. There were 11 original sites proposed.

The Pahrump Regional Planning Commission recommended approval of the bill April 11, 2007.

At the April 18, 2007, public hearing by the Nye County Commission, Borasky suggested a minimum distance remain between correctional facilities and residences.

“I would really like to see some distance between residential housing and that type of facility — a mile and a half — and also be on a paved road as well,” Borasky said.

The proposed bill, 2007-07, had five special conditions at the end, one of which was a requirement that “the facility must be located at least five miles from any established residential use.”

Those special conditions, however, were deleted sometime between March 23, 2007, when the bill was first scheduled for a hearing, and the RPC April 11 meeting with a red line through them. No one objected to the red line deletion — no one took credit for the deletions at the time, and who actually redlined them is unclear even today — but Williams told commissioners the county was supposed to be removing the 50,000-foot setback.

“Again, I’ll make the same statement: Are we going to add a mileage requirement or not?” Borasky asked.

“The way we’re drafting this ordinance, there is no distance or mileage requirement from the residents to the facility,” Nye County Planning Director Jack Lohman said.

Borasky, in a front page April 25, 2007, PVT story titled “Released detainees concern town board member,” said he felt satisfied the county would have enough control over where the detention center was to be located when it came to approving the conditional use permit.

The story specified that the minimum distance had been removed from the special conditions.

But when it came to the rezoning of the Mesquite Avenue property in July 2007, Williams said the county would vote on a development agreement instead of a conditional use permit.

“Would planning approve a correctional facility within a residential neighborhood?” Commissioner Gary Hollis asked at the April 2007 hearing.

“Well, not without a general plan amendment,” said Lohman, “and it would be up to you folks to decide where to put it.”

Hollis, then the county commission chairman, mistakenly called for the vote on the bill before the public comment period.

When public comment was reopened, however, only a couple of people spoke up.

Pahrump resident John Koenig, a regular attendee at county commission meetings, said, if the county set a minimum distance from residences, “it will make it a lot easier at decision time to say that’s a good site.”

Pahrump Town Board member John McDonald had concerns over detainees being released onto the streets of Pahrump.

Attorney Tony Celeste, representing the Geo Group, one of the two contractors bidding on a detention center project, said, placing a minimum separation distance would preclude the county commission from evaluating a potentially viable site for consideration.

Liakopoulos made the motion to approve bill 2007-07. It passed on a 4-1 vote. Carver cast the sole vote in opposition without explaining her objection.

There was an attempt shortly afterward to build a separate Nye County detention facility.

In May 2007, county commissioners voted 3-1 to negotiate with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on a 500-bed detention facility to be built and operated by the county.

Nye County Sheriff Tony DeMeo said he met with Mike Webb, a supervisory agent for ICE, about the proposal, which would allow the county to house its own prisoners and lease bed space to other agencies.

Somehow that plan became mingled in the minds of some with the federal detention center.

On July 11, 2007, the RPC voted to recommend a site farther north on Parque Avenue, almost into Johnnie, for the detention center, while reviewing five zoning applications.

A week later, the county commission passed a motion by Borasky to approve a non-conforming zoning change for 160 acres at the 2250 E. Mesquite Ave., detention center site from open use-general commercial to a community facilities zone, overruling the RPC denial of that site.

County planner Rick Osborne said the nearest residence was 600 feet away.

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