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WEST JORDAN — One of the five remaining sites proposed for relocating the Utah State Prison dropped off the list to jubilant cheers Monday night as property owners of a site being looked at in West Jordan pulled their lot from consideration.
West Jordan Mayor Kim Rolfe had to pause as an estimated 2,500 people at Oakcrest Elementary school cheered the announcement at what was supposed to be a meeting protesting the prison site. Dozens more tried to listen from hallways and outside the school's doors as Rolfe read a letter from the owners of the property, near 9000 South and 7300 West, asking the site be removed from the prison relocation list.
No further details were given in the short letter addressed to the Legislature's Prison Relocation Committee as to why the owners opted to drop their offer.
Along with residents in other cities who don't want the Utah State Prison as their new neighbor, organizers turned attention to a meeting of the Prison Relocation Committee, scheduled for Monday, Dec. 22, in the Senate Building at the Utah State Capitol, urging frustrated residents to oppose the site until West Jordan has been formally removed from the list.
The commission's agenda focuses on two items: Reports from consultants tasked with evaluating each of the five leading sites and plans for public engagement as the list is winnowed down to a final site.
The initial list of the six highest-ranked sites — located in Salt Lake, Utah and Tooele counties — dropped to five last week when a group of developers including Josh Romney, son of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, withdrew their 480-acre site near Saratoga Springs.
Commission co-chairman Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said Monday the five proposed sites all have potential, but the commission will begin dismissing some of them as they are measured against criteria adopted in September assessing proximity to staff and volunteers, environmental considerations, accessibility of services and courts, development costs and community acceptance.
When it comes to community acceptance, West Jordan had initally been ranked as receiving 10 out of 15 points, a measurement organizers and protesters scoffed at Monday night.
Added consideration for impact on economic development was added to the list last week.
"This is a big deal, this will be the largest single expenditure, outside of some highway projects, that the state of Utah is going to make in a long, long while," Stevenson said.
Though there had been concern that the commission would not be prepared to present during the 2015 legislative session, Stevenson said Monday the process is on track to give a recommendation at some point during the session.
As each site is considered some will inevitably drop off the list, with the potential for elimination coming as early as next week's commission meeting, Stevenson said. However, it is more likely those cuts will be made after the first of the year.
Additionally, there is still flexibility for new locations to be considered.
Grassroot community groups and elected leaders from every community being considered have lashed out against the relocation proposal in a game of political hot potato.
Demonstrators are invited to a joint press conference by the Salt Lake City Council and Mayor Ralph Becker at the Utah State Fairpark on Tuesday morning as the state's capital city steps up its defenses against sites proposed north of the airport and northeast of I-80 and 7200 West.
Becker, who called the two Salt Lake city locations "wholly inappropriate" in a report forwarded to the Prison Relocation Commission earlier this month, will also host a meeting Tuesday night for community members wanting to join the city's efforts.
Council Chairman Charlie Luke, who questions whether the prison should move at all, argues that Salt Lake City is already doing its part by hosting five existing correctional facilities. The council contests that Salt Lake residents already carry a higher tax burden due to property tax exemptions in the city, which would only get heavier funding infrastructure work that a new prison would mandate.
"In Salt Lake we have a number of challenges that most other cities in the state don't have to deal with," said Luke, who foresees miles of roadwork, plowing and sewer connections that would be funded by area taxpayers. "Adding the prison to that would only exacerbate that issue."
Luke criticized the relocation process Monday, saying it pits "city against city."
Eagle Mountain's mayor and City Council pledged up to $50,000 last week for lobbying efforts and public campaigns against the move while residents from the area as well as neighboring Saratoga Springs decried the relocation in a public hearing. Protestors in Tooele have also taken to the streets opposing a proposed site not far from Miller Motorsports Park.
Following the announcement that the owners of the West Jordan site were pulling their property from consideration, organizers turned Monday's meeting into a question and answer session about how the prison selection process would continue.
Concerned residents questioned how selection criteria will be weighted by the Prison Relocation Commision, what other areas could possibly be considered, and how close the facility could possibly come to homes and businesses. Despite the development, several residents stood to simply vent their concern, fear and frustration.
The crowd ended the meeting renewing its commitment to hold their ground until a final decision about the prison has been made. Organizers at the meeting passed around cans collecting donations to continue the fight and to recoup costs to the volunteers who began the effort.
Contributing: Nicole Vowell