Dozens confront county board at tense meeting over controversial jail site

Out of the 15 locations under consideration for a new Beltrami County Jail, county commissioners evidently chose the most controversial option on the table, a site in a residential Bemidji neighborhood. Droves of opponents turned out to a recent standing room only county board meeting to give their elected officials an earful. Those voicing opposition included some who don’t even live in the affected area, according to the Bemidji Pioneer.

The Beltrami County board room was packed full on Tuesday evening, as more than 150 community members showed up to a public hearing about the proposed location for a new county jail.

The public hearing comes just over two weeks after the board approved a conditional purchase agreement for a 16.9-acre property located off Jefferson Avenue SW in Bemidji for $540,000.

Many of the attendees were members of the neighborhood surrounding this parcel, while others lived in different parts of the city. All of the dozens who commented, however, expressed their disapproval of the site.

“Jails are not a popular thing, and they shouldn’t be a popular thing,” said Misty Bray in her comments, “(but) this neighborhood is not an appropriate neighborhood for a jail.”

County commissioners acknowledge their preferred location would require changing the current zoning status. But apparently commissioners remain confident about the chances of doing so.

The property under consideration is just one of 15 that were evaluated by a subcommittee for the jail project and was the second-highest rated with the criteria.

Its primary obstacle, from the county’s perspective, is its current zoning, which is residential. However, Barry explained that there is a case to be made to change this zoning due to commercial property nearby.

“There’s no guarantees in this, but it’s clear (a jail) is a possible use,” Barry said.

The potential detrimental impact of the facility on their property values and quality of life prompted residents to plead with the board to reopen the process before going any further.

“I understand there is never a perfect place to put a jail, (but) some places are definitely better than others,” said James Ravnikar. “I think there’s a different, better place than this quiet neighborhood.”

Alongside expressing opposition to the currently proposed location, several community members provided suggestions for other sites.

“We are asking you to reconsider this purchase agreement. We are advocating for a future site with the least amount of impact to families and residents,” Alyssa Carlson said. “We’re your constituents, we want to be involved in this process.”

It’s not clear whether the county board will take the widespread opposition into account and reconsider the site for the jail. The proposed jail project came about following a critical state inspection of the current facility in downtown Bemidji. The estimated potential taxpayer cost of the new jail could reach $500 million.