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SALT LAKE CITY — Within sight of Salt Lake City International Airport, a small herd of antelope roamed near a canal that cuts through one of the five proposed sites for a new state prison.
The site, located off 7200 West, appeared to be even further away from existing development than the Tooele and Utah county sites identified earlier this year by the Legislature’s Prison Relocation Commission.
“One of the things we were trying to get across today is how remote the sites are. How’d we do?” Bob Nardi, the commission’s consultant, asked reporters on a tour Friday of the possible locations.
That point was made repeatedly during the more than five hours it took to stop first at the Salt Lake City site, then at sites in Grantsville near a Wal-Mart distribution center and Miller Motorsports Park, and in Fairfield and Eagle Mountain.
The commission is expected to choose a location by the end of August for a new 4,000-bed facility to replace the aging Utah State Prison in Draper. Gov. Gary Herbert has said he will call a special session of the Legislature to approve a site.
Although there is community opposition to all of the sites, no one protested during Friday's tour organized by the state. Aside from grazing cattle, there was little to see on the massive parcels under consideration.
But homes were visible from the sites in Tooele and Utah counties, and the Salt Lake site — the only one of the five with environmentally sensitive wetlands — was a short drive from the industrial center near the airport.
Nardi said the commission is looking for the "sweet spot" between a site that's remote and yet is still relatively close to courts and medical services as well as employees, volunteers and inmate families.
"Isolation is important. We don't want to interfere with the public's enjoyment of their property," he said near the Eagle Mountain site, located past a "dead end" sign on the southern edge of community, just past a sewage treatment facility.
Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, co-chairman of the commission, said the communities near the properties considered will benefit from the additional infrastructure needed for a prison.
Isolation is important. We don't want to interfere with the public's enjoyment of their property.
–Bob Nardi, commission consultant, to reporters
He said concerns raised about a prison limiting the eventual expansion of a community are unfounded because the new infrastructure will encourage growth around the 500-acre facility.
"All of the sites we've looked at have current inhabitants. They're called cows," Stevenson joked at the Fairfield site, located in the community of about 120 people, near a landfill and an airfield.
A study is underway to determine what the utility and other infrastructure needs are for each of the sites, as well as addressing any environmental, geological or other concerns.
That work should be completed in the coming weeks, Nardi said, noting that so far nothing has been found that would rule out any of the sites selected in February after an initial screening of some 26 sites pitched for the project.
"All five sites are still in contention," Stevenson said, promising that even though there is no favorite now, the commission will have a decision within the next 60 days. "Every site has advantages and disadvantages."
He said the value of the site will be the determining factor for the commission, not just property costs but the price associated with the pluses and minuses, such as better proximity or extending utilities.
Because each site has people pushing to keep the prison out, Stevenson said community opposition is no longer a factor in the decision. He said only Price and Wendover were welcoming, but both communities are too far away to be considered.
And although some lawmakers want the state to take another look at keeping the prison at Point of the Mountain, Stevenson said that option is off the table. The Legislature voted last year to make the move.
"Staying in Draper would be a very poor business decision for the state of Utah," the senator said.
Studies have cited an estimated $1.8 billion economic impact from developing the Draper site, located along the so-called Silicon Slopes.
Steve Turley, a Utah Department of Corrections division director for special prison projects, said he has no favorite site. Asked if a suitable prison could be built on the Draper site, Turley said that was up to lawmakers whether to reconsider the move.
"You ask me to forget the politics, but I can't really. Because the Legislature took a vote to move that from there. So at this point in time, it would not be an option," he said. "What we want is a safe, new facility."
Standing at the Grantsville site by the Wal-Mart distribution center, Turley said nearby residents should realize "a prison is not a negative impact in society. A prison is positive. It comes in and brings jobs to the community."
More information will be available at open houses scheduled at the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, at Grantsville High School on May 28, and at Frontier Middle School in Eagle Mountain on June 2.
Commission members have decided to attend the meetings, each set to last from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., with a two-hour question-and-answer session. Public hearings are anticipated later this summer.