Residents win out as county drops controversial site for new Bemidji jail

Last month it looked like a done deal. The Beltrami County Board of Commissioners announced their intention to build a new, half-a-billion dollar jail by a quiet Bemidji neighborhood zoned residential. Yet just weeks later, the board has pulled the proposed site off the table, an abrupt reversal that probably surprised residents unaccustomed to playing the role of protester, as much as it humbled local officials.

The development came at the latest county board meeting at which the Bemidji Pioneer says commissioners reopened the selection process.

The Beltrami County Board of Commissioners has officially withdrawn its purchase agreement for a property that had been under consideration for the new county jail’s location, following public input.

The decision, which occurred during the board’s meeting on Tuesday, withdrew a purchase agreement for the Weibolt Property, located along Jefferson Avenue a couple of miles south of the Fifth Street roundabout, which the county had previously agreed to buy for $540,000.

The unusual turn of events follows the appearance of a standing-room-only crowd of some 150 Bemidji residents at a board meeting to plead for officials to reconsider. Their message clearly got through to commissioners as well as the public.

Following this public input, the county reconsidered its site selection criteria and altered its measurement of neighborhood impact to include properties within 1,000 feet of the selected site.

“Originally the criteria that was being used for neighborhood impacts was based on adjacent properties,” explained County Administrator Tom Barry, “(We’ve) expanded it to a number of residencies within a 1,000-foot buffer.”

While widespread opposition that extended beyond the neighborhood helped change commissioners minds, so did a move by the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board to ban jail construction in residential areas for six months. But give county officials credit for listening and responding to taxpayers.

“It is not uncommon for controversial projects like this to take several twists and turns as they come to fruition,” said County Administrator Tom Barry. “The County Board was already in the process of considering other locations based on the feedback it received at the June 20th public hearing. I think they have shown that they were listening and eager to look for a compromise. The actions of the GBAJPB just helped to spur that along,” Barry said.