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SALT LAKE CITY — A new site for the Utah State Prison in Draper could be chosen next Tuesday, and depending on when Gov. Gary Herbert calls lawmakers into special session, it may be up for approval later this month.
"We just decided it's time to move this ahead," said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, co-chairman of the Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission that will consider the four sites already identified for the $550 million project.
Stevenson, R-Layton, said he and House Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, determined Tuesday morning they would have enough information by next week to make a recommendation to the Legislature.
The commission's Aug. 11 meeting was announced later in the day in a news release from the House and Senate, less than three weeks after members extended their deadline for making a choice from Aug. 1 to Oct. 1.
But Stevenson said since then, the state has been able to just about complete negotiations with the owners of the sites on the commission's shortlist: in Salt Lake City, Eagle Mountain and Fairfield in Utah County, and Grantsville in Tooele County.
"We've had some things come together quickly," the senator said, declining to discuss the deals.
The cost of the hundreds of acres needed for the 4,000-bed prison was not part of the consultant's in-depth analysis of each site, released in July.
That study pointed to Eagle Mountain as the cheapest and easiest to develop, while the Salt Lake site, west of Salt Lake City International Airport, was the costliest and possibly the most problematic because of wetlands in the area.
We just decided it's time to move this ahead.
–Sen. Jerry Stevenson
However, other factors, including the cost of operating a prison on the various sites, as well as economic development potential, favor the Salt Lake site because of its proximity to employees and volunteers, as well as courts and hospitals.
"We've got a short decision we could make, or a long-term decision," Wilson said.
He said he believes Fairfield, a tiny community near an historic site, is no longer an alternative, but Grantsville remains feasible.
There is significant opposition to all of the sites from elected and community leaders, who have called for the state to look at building a new prison at the 700-acre Point of the Mountain site rather than free up the prime real estate for development.
Last week, Herbert took a four-hour tour of the prison to weigh rebuilding on the site. His spokesman, Jon Cox, said Tuesday the governor has still not decided the option should be ruled out.
"Throughout this process, that has been the governor's position," Cox said, although prison officials made it clear how the difficulty of "operating a prison on the same site as an active construction zone."
Cox said "all options are on the table" when it comes to setting a special session date for a vote on the commission's recommendations, including the Legislature's next interim day, Aug. 19.
The governor "reserves the right to call a special session at any point in time," he said. "It can be an interim day. It can be another day."
Holding a special session on an interim days saves taxpayers thousands of dollars because lawmakers are already at the Capitol for monthly meetings. In September, lawmakers are scheduled to take an overnight bus trip to Moab.
"I think if I was the governor, I would do it sooner rather than later," Wilson said.
He and other Utah lawmakers are attending the National Conference of State Legislatures meeting in Seattle. Herbert will address the group Wednesday.
The news of next week's commission meeting surprised Stephanie Gricius, a founder of Keep It in Draper, a group opposed to moving the prison, and a candidate for the Eagle Mountain City Council.
"I thought they were going to take more time," she said, noting the meeting will be held the same day as the primary election. "They kind of threw us for a loop on this one."
Grantsville Mayor Brent Marshall said there's little to do now but wait.
"We've played all the cards we've got," Marshall said. "It is nothing more than a cop out, to move the prison to a different location."
Lynn Pace, senior adviser to Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, said he expects the commission to name a site next Tuesday.
"I'm assuming if they had any serious questions, they wouldn't meet," Pace said.
Cox said the governor expected the commission to make a recommendation close to the original deadline.
"To characterize it as quick, I think would be incorrect. I think the process has been very methodical and continues to be," Cox said. "The governor will carefully review the recommendations made."