EDA votes to give land for correctional center

Published 10:12 pm Tuesday, January 29, 2019

By Stephen Faleski

The Tidewater News

In a reversal of its Jan. 8 decision, Isle of Wight County’s Economic Development Authority last week voted 5-2 to deed two parcels of land along Walters Highway to the county government.

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Both parcels, totaling nearly 40 acres, are located in a proposed third phase of the county’s EDA-owned Shirley T. Holland Intermodal Park. The county government has identified the larger, 20-acre parcel as its preferred location for a planned 60-bed, state-run juvenile correctional facility.

The EDA had previously voted 5-1 not to transfer the land to either the county or the state for the project, with James Ford of Smithfield as the dissenting vote. EDA Chairman Ron Pack, also of Smithfield, abstained from that vote.

Don Robertson, assistant county administrator and county spokesman, said he was under the impression that the EDA had scheduled the second vote because its members did not want to take any action until after the public information sessions on the project, which were held in the Windsor Town Center on Jan. 10. Robertson said that prior to the vote, there had been a lengthy discussion, during which several members expressed a reluctance to vote prior to those sessions.

However, Pack said he scheduled the meeting in response to a request by the county’s Board of Supervisors last week that the EDA reconsider its decision.

The two dissenting votes on Wednesday came from Dick Holland, who represents the town of Windsor on the EDA, and Len Alphin, who represents the county’s Windsor election district. Holland questioned why a new vote was necessary after getting County Attorney Bobby Jones to confirm that the EDA had not been out of order during the first vote.

“I’ve not talked to anyone outside of county leadership who wants this project, and that’s who I represent; I don’t represent the Board of Supervisors,” Holland said, referring to the EDA’s vote that afternoon as the “last line of defense” against the county’s and state’s plans for the correctional center.

Alphin said he too had not talked to anyone who had been “gung-ho about getting a prison.” He also expressed concerns about a perceived lack of transparency on the county’s part during early negotiations with the state.

Pack, however, pointed out that prior to the county’s acquisition of land for industrial parks, the EDA’s main purpose had been to issue industrial revenue bonds to businesses. While he admitted that the county had deeded the industrial park land to the EDA “free and clear,” he said he believed it was with the intention that the EDA “hold, manage and maintain property for the county, and transfer it back to the county when they request.”

“I don’t think the [EDA] board has the authority to deny the return of this property,” Pack said. “It is not our job to change their [the Board of Supervisors’] decisions.”

The state selected Isle of Wight County as its desired location for the center after Isle of Wight’s Board of Supervisors — in closed session meetings held in early 2018 — expressed interest, and ultimately sent a formal proposal to Virginia’s Department of Juvenile Justice for locating the facility in Isle of Wight County. During its negotiations with the state, the county had requested that the General Assembly keep the proposed center in its 2018-2019 budget and change the proposed location from Chesapeake to Isle of Wight County.

“I would think you would get some public sentiment before you say, ‘We want it,’” Holland said.

“The way it was handled, in my opinion, is very concerning, and I hope we learn something from that,” Alphin added.

County Administrator Randy Keaton, responding to Holland’s and Alphin’s concerns about transparency, said the Windsor Town Council had talked about the correctional center in open session in February 2018. This was when Windsor Councilman Walter Bernacki had referred to the project as a “youth development center” and was told by Town Manager Michael Stallings at the time that the matter was not public yet.

The county officially went public with its plans for the center in July 2018, and on Jan. 10, held two public information sessions where county residents were able to question county and state officials directly about the project.

On Jan. 17, during a Board of Supervisors meeting, several supervisors made rebuttals that evening to comments that had been made at the public information sessions.

Supervisor Rudolph Jefferson, who represents the county’s Hardy District, said he felt some of the comments made at the public information sessions were inappropriate and inaccurate. However, he said he felt Keaton’s remarks at those sessions had been truthful.

“Windsor, I think, is going to be a great benefactor of this project,” Jefferson said. “Look at the jobs, look at the money that will be spent. It’s not going to be spent in Smithfield. It’s not going to be spent in Franklin.”

Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice said he took personal exception to comments that the board had been less than transparent, and pointed out that he and Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree had insisted that the Windsor town government be consulted before the county proceeded with its plans.

“This board has been forthcoming, held numerous public sessions to give information,” added Board of Supervisors Chairman William McCarty. “There is nothing this board is trying to withhold.”

Following the EDA’s vote, Holland announced that he would be resigning from the EDA.

Now, with the two parcels back in the hands of the county, a public hearing will be required before the county’s Board of Supervisors can vote on whether to go through with deeding the land to the state. Only the 20-acre parcel would be needed for the juvenile correctional center.

County officials announced during the Board of Supervisors’ Nov. 15, 2018, meeting that there is another business interested in locating on the roughly 19.5-acre parcel next to the correctional center. No details were provided at that time as to the size or nature of this business, other than that it was being referred to using the code name “Project Bolt.”