Source: Utah State Prison Could Move to Site Near Salt Lake International Airport; Tooele Site Out of the Running

One of the top sites for a new $450 million state prison is out by the Salt Lake City International Airport, UtahPolicy has been told.

Prison Relocation Commission co-chair Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, declined to confirm that is one of four sites that received the highest numerical scores in the commission’s exhaustive search process.

Tooele County, for now, is out of the running. A bit of a surprise, since the mostly-rural county had been talked about extensively before.

Stevenson declined to list the four sites, adding that parcels that were ranked 5th, 6th or even 7th by the commission and its consultant could be added back into the mix later as the commission moves forward.

By January’s 2015 Legislature the commission should be recommending the top site to lawmakers, so that real work on locking up a parcel can take place.

“I don’t want to be more specific,” Stevenson told UtahPolicy after being asked if the airport site was tops on the list.

For any number of reasons, said Stevenson – including getting a formal earnest money deposit on a parcel – the commission has to work outside of public purview for at least a bit more time.

All of the four finalist sites – including one in Saratoga Springs in northern Utah County – are now in private hands. You can read about Saratoga Spring political leader’s opposition in this Deseret News story.

While not confirming the airport site, Stevenson said one concern about any parcel would be liquefaction and the stability of the land and high water table.

Currently, the Great Salt Lake is low. But back in the 1980s it reached almost historic high water levels, often washing across I-80 out in Tooele County.

Airport officials were considering diking the runways until the Legislature and then-Gov. Norm Bangerter bought huge salt water pumps, placed them on the lake’s westside, and pump water out into the West Desert where it could evaporate.

“I think several of the (four) sites could involve bringing in some (soil) fill,” said Stevenson.

(Maybe a high water table could stop inmates from tunneling out – just a thought.)

In the commission’s site evaluation process, Stevenson said, members decided to heavily weigh factors like convenience of staff, volunteers and inmate families in getting to and from the new prison.

Vehicle air pollution was also considered, he added.

And driving the extra 30 miles to a Tooele County prison ended up harming any Tooele County site.

What has not yet been considered formally by the commission is opposition from neighbors. That has to wait, of course, until exact parcels are publicly identified.

“I’ve probably gotten 30 emails just today from folks” worried that the new prison could be near them, said Stevenson.

However, he feels that as the public process of the commission’s work goes forward, the advantages to a community – and certainly to Utah as a whole – will be seen.

The political and fiscal problem, Stevenson said, will come in the 2015 Legislature when lawmakers realize that the original cost of moving the prison must be born by the state for several years – at least three years – before the financial benefits derived from developing the old prison land are seen.

Ultimately, he said, economic forecasts show the current prison site, at the Point of the Mountain near I-15, will generate $1.9 billion a year, with a resulting tax take among all local governments and the state of between $85 million and $90 million a year.

“If we move the prison to a site surrounded by industrial use, that is not a big impact” on surrounding businesses or neighborhoods.

But moving it to a site surrounded by business parks, well, that could be an impact, he sad.

Of the four sites, one is near the airport, one is in Saratoga Springs, and two are on the westside of Salt Lake County, UtahPolicy is told.

When the current prison was originally relocated from Sugar House Park to Point of the Mountain in the early 1950s, that site was rural, even deserted.

Now it is surrounded by businesses and homes and is inside of Draper City.

A new prison in Salt Lake County – which still has some open space but is the state’s most populated county – may, some day, face some of the same neighborhood concerns.

“But we really must have nearby utilities” for the new prison, said Stevenson.

It makes little sense for the state to have to move sewer and water lines miles to hook up, or to pay Rocky Mountain Power $25 million to bring in electricity, he added.