Public outcry over Bemidji jail location prompts county to back off

It happens so rarely that you can’t help but notice when it does. Every once in a while, the proverbial little guy prevails over the powers that be — or in the case of a Bemidji neighborhood facing rezoning so that a proposed new county jail could move in next door, he gets a reprieve, and maybe more.

The Beltrami County Board’s selection of a site for the jail in a neighborhood zoned residential provoked some 150 citizens to pack the room of a recent board meeting and speak in opposition. Their message clearly got through to board members, according to the Bemidji Pioneer.

In the wake of public concern and disapproval regarding the selected location for a new county jail, Beltrami County announced its openness to selecting a new location on Friday.

According to a release from County Administrator Tom Barry, the county board has authorized him to continue investigating other possible locations for the jail…

“It is very important that we hear from the residents that will be most impacted by the location of the facility,” Barry said in the release. “The information we collect from residents, good or bad, is just as important in evaluating the suitability of the property as the other studies are.”

The northwestern Minnesota county has little choice but to construct a new, up to half a billion dollar facility, following a highly critical inspection of the current jail by the Minnesota Department of Corrections. County officials compiled a roster of 15 potential locations for the proposed jail before settling on the current site.

“We understand that wherever the county chose to locate the new jail, surrounding neighbors would likely not enthusiastically embrace it,” Sheriff Jason Riggs said in the release. “But the project must move forward or the county risks having the Department of Corrections close the jail, and that would be extremely disruptive and expensive for the county.

For the time being, county officials have paused plans to pursue rezoning the neighborhood and the permits to proceed due to the controversy, as well as new questions over whether Bemidji’s ordinances allow a new jail to be built there at all.

Given this recent development and the information gathered at the public hearing, the county board has directed Barry to delay the submission of the county’s conditional use permit and rezone request. The board also authorized him to continue investigating other locations.

“The county board has not abandoned the Wiebolt [neighborhood] site, but recent developments have afforded the county an opportunity to investigate other potential properties that have since come to our attention or may have changed in status,” Barry detailed. “While a project of this scale and type can be, and typically is, very controversial, the county acknowledges that it is important to listen to citizens and modify, when possible, our approach to ensure we are good stewards of our community.”

So it’s back to the drawing board for county planners to reconsider other options for the jail. That doesn’t mean neighbors can declare outright victory yet, but county commissioners will have to think long and hard about their options because residents and other citizens took a stand.