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SALT LAKE CITY — With a recommendation for a new location for the Utah State Prison coming as soon as next month, opponents of the move are stepping up their efforts.
"I think they want to hurry and get it done so people can't continue to express their concerns," said Heidi Balderree of Keep It In Draper. "I think they're anxious to be done quickly."
Still pending is a petition filed with the Utah Supreme Count on behalf of the group that seeks permission to launch a referendum to repeal a law set to go into effect later this month that includes funding for the relocation process.
"We're working on all the angles," Balderree said. "We're still willing to make noise."
Five sites are under consideration by the Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission, in Eagle Mountain and Fairfield in Utah County, in and near Grantsville in Tooele County, and near Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake County.
There is community opposition to all of the sites. In Fairfield, which has a population of just 120, local government leaders hired an engineer to write a report explaining the lack of water available for a 4,000-bed prison.
I think they want to hurry and get it done so people can't continue to express their concerns.
–Heidi Balderree, Keep It In Draper
Peter Lawrence, Fairfield's mayor pro tempore, sent copies of the report to every state lawmaker as well as Gov. Gary Herbert's office. So far, Lawrence said, all he's heard is that the report has been passed along to the commission's consultants.
"It's not like we were trying to invent a story to make it look good. This is a critical situation," Lawrence said of the community's need to find a new source of water just for its own residents.
He said Fairfield will continue to dip into its budget, estimated at about $178,000 annually, to come up with more information to continue to make the case that it doesn't have the infrastructure to support a prison.
The commission has not met since announcing the shortlist in February, but co-chairman and House Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said that's because consultants are still conducting an in-depth analysis of each site.
"There's a ton of work going on, but it's being done by engineers, surveyors and all of that," Wilson said. "It may be enough that we can make the decision in June. We may send them back for more information."
It's not like we were trying to invent a story to make it look good. This is a critical situation.
–Peter Lawrence, Fairfield mayor pro tempore
Wilson said he had not yet read the report from Fairfield, but said critics of every site have brought up reasons why a prison would be a bad fit. The $550 million project, he said, could end up being a solution to infrastructure problems.
"Anytime you're looking at putting in a facility where it's going to take up 500 acres, there are going to be issues. That's not a surprise," Wilson said. "It's just a question of what the cost would be" to address those issues.
Before the consultants' work is done, the commission is holding three open houses: May 20 at the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City; May 28 in Grantsville; and June 2 in Eagle Mountain.
But the notice for the open houses, which last from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. and include a two-hour question and answer session, spells out that they are not public hearings and members of the commission "will not be in attendance."
Balderree, who lives in Saratoga Springs and is also involved with a group trying to keep a new prison out of Utah County, said that makes the open houses "more of a show-and-tell."
The commission's other co-chairman, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said public hearings will be held once the consultants have finished their work. Some sites, he said, could be taken off the shortlist depending on what's found.
The open houses are intended to answer questions about what a new prison would look like and well as what its economic value would be to a community, Stevenson said.
"I'm not sure what that would accomplish," he said of attending the open houses. "I don't think these are designed to change people's opinions. They're designed to get facts on the table. … It's not argue time."
Stevenson said he believes it could take longer than 30 days to come up with a recommended site. The new law sets an Aug. 1 deadline for that selection to be made by the commission, but Stevenson said that could be extended.
Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to call lawmakers into special session to consider the recommendation. The state has been looking at moving the nearly 700-acre state prison for several years to free up the prime real estate for development.