Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett on Friday said he'd like the siting process for a new Vigo County Jail to be put on pause while an independent attorney reviews the matter.
In a written statement released Friday afternoon, the mayor said he'd spoken to county commissioners, and he believes they feel they've sought proper expertise and advice as they've decided to propose a county-owned, riverside track at 2403 Prairieton Road as the home for a new jail.
Still, Bennett said, he wants a third-party review.
"I am recommending that we take time to formally consult with a third-party attorney who can offer a neutral and sound written legal opinion for both city and county officials to support the process," Bennett wrote.
"I realize that this is a county decision, but as the mayor, I also understand the implications of this decision on all the citizens of our community.
"I will look forward to accepting the consult of outside legal counsel that will offer my administration, the City Council, and the Board of Zoning Appeals the information necessary to make a sound decision on our end," Bennett said.
"Until then, my recommendation is to hold on any movement for or against actions necessary to advance the proposed site. This request should not be troublesome for anyone and can easily be done in a timely fashion."
County commissioners on Thursday filed a request for a zoning variance, rather than a change in zoning classification, to build the new sheriff’s office and “security annex” on the site, formerly the International Paper property.
If approved by the city’s board of zoning appeals, a variance would not be subject to city council review.
When commissioners considered the same site in 2017, they requested a zoning change but withdrew the request after city council members and other groups voiced opposition.
Many feel the site is a prime piece of property for public "quality of place" projects.
While city officials favor having the jail in the city, most council members made it clear Thursday night they again oppose the riverside location. Councilwoman Martha Crossen, D-6th, and councilman Todd Nation, D-2nd, each used the phrase “legal subterfuge” to describe the county’s change in tactics
Council members said they plan to invite Michael Wright, attorney for county commissioners, to appear at their next meeting or provide a written explanation about the request for a variance over a request for zoning re-classification.
The county's Board of Commissioners is proposing a new jail with about 480 beds, smaller and less expensive than the previous size recommended by a consultant.
In their application filed Wednesday with the Terre Haute Board of Zoning Appeals, commissioners they are considering a facility of roughly 130,000 square feet with about 480 beds.
That is downsized from the previously proposed for 527 beds, which had a projected construction cost of $66 million, not including financing or operations.
A new cost estimate is expected within a week.
Additionally, the county is seeking three special-use exceptions that would allow “a community-minded use for [part] of the property.”
Those could include allowances for parks and playgrounds; stadiums, auditoriums and arenas; outdoor amusement establishments, fairgrounds, permanent carnivals, kiddie parks and other similar amusement centers, and places of assembly.
The commissioners' request is set to go before the Board of Zoning Appeals at 9 a.m. Nov. 14 in council chambers at the Vigo County Annex.
In mid-August, the Vigo County Council voted 5-2 to raise the county's income tax by 0.75 percentage points to fund a new jail and support other public safety matters. That vote raised the local income tax from 1.25 percent to 2 percent.
County officials are under legal pressure, including a federal class action lawsuit, to resolve substandard conditions and overcrowding at the current jail.
A federal judge has already made note of unconstitutional conditions at the jail and is awaiting a report due no later than Oct. 15 from Vigo County that must include "a reasonable timetable which reflects when the new jail will be operational."
U.S. Chief District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson also has indicated the county will have to increase jail staffing in the interim to provide more recreational time for inmates and more health and safety checks.
The judge has set a hearing at 1 p.m. Nov. 13 at the U.S. Courthouse in Terre Haute.