On Thursday, Monroe County commissioners were eager to establish that no decision has yet been reached on a choice of location for a new county jail.
About a minute into a meeting of county elected officials on Thursday afternoon, commissioner Penny Githens said, “I want to state emphatically: No decision has been made yet on the location.”
One idea that might find some traction for an eventual decision about the choice of site came from Bloomington city council president Sue Sgambelluri, who gave public comment at Thursday’s meeting.
Sgambelluri noted that the city council has made it a priority for the new jail to be located inside the city limits, but not for the sake of being inside the city limits. Instead, Sgambelluri said, it is “for the sake of having access to transit.”
Now that the city council has authorized Bloomington Transit to operate anywhere in Monroe County, Sgambelluri said, the issue should framed not in terms of inside-versus-outside the city limits, but rather in terms of access to public transit.
The county commissioners attempted in late 2022 to have a property in the southwest corner of the city of Bloomington rezoned to allow for a jail to be built there. That land is inside the city limits, but was not served by an existing public bus route.
Bloomington’s city council rejected that late 2022 rezone request.
In late August, a certain amount of momentum had built up behind the Thomson PUD site as a potential new location. It’s south of Catalent and west of Rogers Street—inside the city limits and closer to existing support services.
Late August is when commissioners approved $19,100 worth of contracts that reflect the next steps towards choice of the Thomson PUD site.
One agreement was with VET Environmental ($4,750) for a Phase 1 environmental assessment and site reconnaissance. A second agreement was with First Appraisal Group ($2,500) for an appraisal of the roughly 5-acre property on the north side of the Thomson PUD sit that the county government will be looking to buy. A third agreement was with Patriot Engineering and Environmental ($11,850) for geotechnical engineering.
Public notice of Thursday’s meeting described it as a joint meeting of the county commissioners and the county council. On the council’s side just Geoff McKim attended in person, while Cheryl Munson attended on the Zoom video conference platform.
Two of the county commissioners, Lee Jones and Penny Githens, took turns reading aloud a prepared statement, which included a summary of what they consider to be points of consensus.
Points of consensus include co-locating a new jail with other components of the justice system—the courtrooms, judge’s chambers, public defender, and the prosecutor. Co-location requires more land, including adequate parking. Commissioners want to allow for enough space to accommodate future needs.
According to commissioners, the design-build firm that they have hired as the consultant on the project (DLZ), says at least 25 acres is needed to accomplish all those goals.
Even though the Thomson PUD site includes around 80 acres, not all of it is buildable, for different reasons. One is the utility lines that run east-west along the southern part of the site. Another is the possibility of karst features—geological formations created by the dissolution of limestone. Karst features mean sinkholes, caves, disappearing streams, and underground drainage systems.
Included in the recently delivered Patriot Engineering and Environmental report is a basic caution about karst:
We recommend that geophysical testing be performed to verify that karst features are not present in the structure areas and delineate the karst area. Patriot can provide a proposal for a geophysical study upon request.
In part of the prepared statement read by Githens, she ticked through some of the concerns that the commissioners have heard from the public, related to safety. Githens described those concerns as involving the safety of the children who attend Summit Elementary School and who use the nearby parks.
Another concern described by Githens was about increased traffic—especially around the time of school opening and in closing times. As an additional concern that commissioners have heard, Githens listed the impact that a jail will have on nearby home values. Githens also noted the specific concern about locating the jail near a Habitat for Humanity neighborhood that’s currently under construction.
About the school traffic issues, Githens said that the two road access points to the new jail location would likely be Strong Drive, and the extension of Adams Street, or else a new street coming off of Adams.
County councilor Geoff McKim picked up on the access points. Many of the concerns about traffic should have been allayed by the fact that Rogers Street would not provide the ingress-egress route, he said. If Rogers Street is not an ingress-egress point, then the impact on the Broadview neighborhood is “nil,” as far as McKim can see.
For McKim, a bigger worry than traffic is how to buffer Habitat for Humanity’s new Osage Place neighborhood against a new jail. McKim said, “The biggest concern is to make sure that the residents there don’t lose value—either in terms of money or just in terms of quality of life.”
Achieving that buffer, McKim called “a significant design decision,” but he does not think the Osage Place buffering challenge eliminates the Thompson property as a site for the jail.
McKim suggested that locating the jail nearby might actually help with some of the existing issues. McKim said, “You know, it’s clear that there are, for want of a better word, ‘sketchy’ people who hang out behind Summit in the woods there sometimes.” He added, “I kind of feel like having a government facility, having a sheriff’s department, and a jail, is going to be part of the solution.”
Added to the mix that has slowed momentum towards the Thomson PUD site as a potential jail location is a possible revisiting of the question of the need for a new jail. In late October, county commissioners approved a $40,000 feasibility study. The study is required under state statute before a new jail is built.
But since the county received a consultant’s report two and half years ago—indicating that the current facility at 7th Street and College Avenue, is failing to provide constitutional levels of care—there have been calls for a more detailed analysis of what it would take to renovate the existing jail.
The Thomson PUD site is zoned for use as a jail. But the county government would likely request that the city council approve some revisions to other parts of the PUD zoning, related to transportation infrastructure.
If that’s the path the county government takes, it will be the 2024 edition of the Bloomington city council that makes the rezone decision for the Thomson property.