Unanimous support for a new Walton County jail – just not the proposed location

MONROE, GA – The Walton County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a land purchase and donation between E. Church Street and Hammond Drive that would make way for a centralized public safety complex. According to officials, this complex would likely include the Walton County Sheriff’s Administration, as well as a proposed new jail and EMS support.

Rough view of the location of the proposed property for the Walton County Public Safety Complex – borders are not exact.

No timeline for development has been given, but the property deal is expected to close before the end of the year. The need for a new jail has been no secret for many years. The 2006 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax included an expansion of the current jail that has been overcrowded for years, but in the last decade it appeared that a new jail was a more feasible proposition. Just nobody could agree on the location. And it is likely to be the case again with this latest proposal. At this time, however, it would appear that the BOC seems intent on moving ahead, at least with the purchase of the property. Walton County officials say it would be the right location for the new jail.

“The Board of Commissioners has considered this lot as the location for the complex for at least eight years,” said Patrice Broughton, public information officer for the Walton County BOC. “The site in question has been chosen because of its proximity to the Walton County Government building. This allows for easier travel of inmates to and from court, eliminating the use of public streets for transport.  The site also will house Sheriff Administration as well as future ambulance support. The goal is to centralize public safety in this area, with the Government Building being the cornerstone.”

Walton County Sheriff Joe Chapman agreed. He said he expected there would be some sort of tunnel from the jail to the courts to move prisoners back and forth. He was, however, aware that there would likely be some pushback from the people who lived in the residential area – and he was not wrong. The property in question is within walking distance of several homes, schools, parks and churches and residents and stakeholders in the area are already mobilizing to let their objections be known.

Melinda Quinn, chairman of the governing board of Monroe County Day School, which is about 1/2 a mile away on E. Church Street, released a statement noting that while they are in agreement that a jail is needed, they do not believe that in the middle of a residential area is the right location.

“The Monroe Country Day School governing Board has concerns regarding construction of a detention facility in close proximity to our school where children ages 4 to 17 attend classes. We are sympathetic to the need for a new facility, but the proposed location raises serious concerns about community safety in the event of a jail security incident,” Quinn said. “This site is within short walking distance to three schools, a college and churches as well as two parks where families congregate and children play. Additionally, what will the impact on surrounding neighborhoods’ property values and the environment be?”

The schools in close proximity are MCDS, Carver Middle School and the Bridge of Georgia. The parks are Pilot Park and Hammond Park.

Quinn questioned whether feasibility studies on the proposed location would be completed and expressed her hope that school board members, students, and parents will be consulted as key stakeholders in this decision.

Zac Johnson, another MCDS board member, questioned whether this really would be the perfect location for the jail.

“I think they will outgrow the area in no time, the jail as it is, is over populated, moving it further into the city where there is not much room to grow I just see having to move it again very soon which would be a waste of tax payer money – not to mention being that close to a school,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that very many cities think it’s a good idea for the jail to be not only in the city limits but also, less than a mile away from a school and pilot park as well as across the street from another park, Hammond, that the city plans to rejuvenate in the coming months/years. If there is a problem at the jail, the areas surrounding the jail have to go on lockdown until the situation has been rectified, I would not want that in close proximity to a school or park. Also in between this location and the government buildings is a creek, and not a well maintained creek, that could be a hazard if there happened to be an escaped inmate. Also, over in that area there could be more people willing to bring in contraband or throw it over the fence.”

Johnson also noted that it would likely put more traffic through the city and on Church Street that has already been the cause of much traffic controversy for Monroe city officials. 

“I think it would be a terrible move for the city to bring a county jail further into the city, that would mean Loganville, Social Circle, Walnut Grove, Between, Bold Springs would all have to come through the city to get to the jail,” he said.

Monroe Mayor John Howard, however, felt that there would be benefits despite the location. He said he understood that a new jail was an issue that needed to be addressed.

“We understand the jail / public safety complex is an absolute necessity; we have known it was a vital topic that needed to be addressed. As the jail has been full / beyond max capacity for quite awhile, it was just a matter of time before the county would have been ordered to build a new jail,” he said, noting that he believed some of the concerns for residents in the area would be addressed. “I am not comfortable with people who should be in jail ‘walking free,’ because of our inability to house them. The complex will be fully enclosed, and the prisoners will be transported to the County Municipal Complex via private drive. Making this complex to address all of public safety will allow us to use the SPLOST funds directed to the jail from years ago, while receiving federal funds to help with emergency management, rehabilitation, and federally mandates regarding inmate housing.”

He said while there are concerns about traffic, and will likely always be, there have already been moves to address some of those concerns in the City of Monroe.

“We do have major concerns about added traffic, but we always have concerns about traffic safety, speed, volume, etc.  In the coming years, there are four approved neighborhoods along the Church Street corridor that will add a combined 350 homes. Our truck route is due to begin in twelve months.  We have already limited traffic on Church Street, so major outlets will be off Hammond and Unisia,” he said. “We will constantly be looking at ways to improve the efficiency and safety of our streets and roadways.”

A new jail that addresses some of the shortfalls experienced by the current jail, Howard said, would keep offenders off the street while they are awaiting their court dates.

“Our state mental hospitals no longer exist and the Sheriff has proven that he will care for these individuals, whether or not the state will do its part. The increased number of beds, housed in the same complex with quality medical care for our inmates, makes our community safer and enhances the livability and desirability of the city of Monroe,” he said.

However, the two Monroe councilmen in whose districts the proposed jail would go, are not that happy with the location. Councilman Larry Bradley has expressed his concerns about the current proposed location due to it being largely a residential area and Councilman David Dickinson, who lives in the area and is the representative for the super district in which the property falls, also has expressed his concerns. He said that while he was aware of the need for a new jail and that the E. Church Street location was one under consideration, he was not aware that it was going to be voted on this week.

“The went ahead and voted on it without anybody really knowing that they were concentrating on that property,” Dickinson said. “I’m opposed to it and I’ve had calls from a bunch of folks in my district. I don’t think it is a good location. We need a new jail. The one we have is totally inadequate, but it my opinion that is not the right location for it. I don’t know of any county around that has put a jail in the middle of a residential area.”

The property is in the Monroe City Limits and while it is right in the middle of a residential area, no rezone would be necessary since the County’s use for the land and facility supersedes the City’s zoning laws, according to Monroe City Administrator Logan Propes.

“We only hope for and would ask the County to generally abide by most of our zoning requirements or conditions regarding landscape screening, setbacks, parking lot lighting, etc. so that if this is the place the Public Safety Complex is built that it would have a minimal visual impact to the nearby residential neighborhoods,” Propes said. “Traffic is somewhat of a concern when transports come from other jurisdictions but, as the Mayor noted, I hope with the eventual opening of the bypass other routes than through downtown can be made.”

The county would reportedly get 21,326 acres for $500,000 and the balance would be in the form of a donation by the owner.

Editor’s Disclaimer: Please note that the author of this story is also a member of the Monroe Country Day School Governing Board.

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