Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood speaks

Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood speaks during a public hearing held Thursday night at the Town Barn meeting hall in downtown Hillsborough. A standing-room-only crowd came out to the public hearing to speak both for and against a proposed jail/detention center facility for the county at the conjunction of U.S. Highway 70 and West Hill Avenue, approximately two miles northwest of downtown Hillsborough.

On Thursday evening at the Town of Hillsborough’s Town Barn Meeting Hall, nearly fifty local citizens came to take part in a public hearing regarding the proposed sale of three parcels of land along U.S. Highway 70 near West Hill Avenue, 21 acres in total. The land is proposed to be utilized for the purposes of constructing a new county facility that will include a detention center and jail, an agricultural/environmental campus, and eventually office space for county employees. 

In order to construct such a facility, the Town of Hillsborough must rezone the property from residential/agricultural into the Town’s economic development district for suburban office zoning.

Orange County is currently in the midst of a “fairly thorough” due diligence process, according to the county’s Asset Management Director, Jeff Thompson. 

Thompson explained to the Hillsborough Planning Board and Town Commissioners that the purpose of a campus operation is to relieve some stressed facilities, such as the current Orange County jail that was constructed in the mid-1920s and was refurbished back in the 1980s, and the county’s environmental/agricultural center, whose current site is functionally obselete. 

“Our first criteria at a high level is operational efficiencies,” Thompson said. “Having the ability to serve the public from an outward view, and also serve internally on an efficient basis. This property, and its location, does that. It’s effective cost management. The campus setting is less expensive. You can leverage that site, and do more with that dollar on a first-cost basis, and then an ongoing operational basis.” 

A park operations phase is eventually proposed for the site, with the county’s park operations working with with agricultural department, that will service the northern part of the county. That office currently works out of Chapel Hill. 

The agricultural/cultural center is proposed to be approximately 15,000 square feet, on the north-center quadrant of the 21-acre combined tract. The detention center, described as ‘single story, low-profile,’ would be between 40,000 and 47,000 square feet, and is proposed to be on the northwest corner of the property, near the intersection of Highway 70 and West Hill Avenue. 

Thompson was asked by various planning board members about whether or not sites near the current Orange County justice facility were feasible, but he explained that for a variety of reasons, the renovation of the current complex, or the construction of a new complex, isn’t going to be a workable situation.

“We actually conducted that feasibility study, and a few things emerged that were significant,” Thompson explained. “One, it’s extremely expensive to house the detainees while we’re building - about a two-year process. We have limited expansion capability there. And frankly, we were discouraged in our discussions with Town staff on that type of a development at that location.” 

Thompson added that the county studied the area next to the Justice facility, between the market and Eno River park, which is all county property.

“We also were discouraged when we discussed that with Town staff,” he said. “It would still be limited from an expansion standpoint. We would have to relocate the Market House. And we’d have to relocate the District Attorney.” 

Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood gave extensive details to the Hillsborough officials about the logistics of the current Orange County justice facility. He discussed current inmate transportation methods and means, as well as the current policies in place to house inmates incarcerated for various offenses. This was to address concerns on the part of local residents about potential safety issues with transporting inmates in and out of the County Courthouse area. 

“There is one central detention center, and that is it,” Sheriff Blackwood explained. “However, there is a misconception that we walk them across the street. We don’t do that, because of liability issues. I will say that all the sites that have been looked at have pros and cons. All of them can meet the operational needs of the detention center. Some of them, just by where they’re located, are better than others.”

“We talk about the detention center being out in a far away location. That’s not really feasible as far as operational needs,” he continued. “However, when you’re talking about driving them across the street, or driving them three blocks, there’s very little difference in that. Because they have got to be driven anyway. But when you talk about adding distance to that of miles, or four or five miles, then the operational costs go up exponentially.” 

Blackwood said that most every tranpsort done today by Orange County is done with an unmarked patrol car. 

“We transport our inmates from Hillsborough to Chapel Hill,” he said. “We’re very fortunate in Orange County, that our judges have seen fit to schedule what we call the jail-based cases, such that we know when they’re going to be held. The only time that we have to move multiple customers is if we have to have Superior Court cases, where we have plea dates, where we have five or six coming at one time. And those cases, we use a jail van. The jail-based cases from Chapel Hill, they try to handle by other means, so we don’t have to have so much transport. But we still have to do that.” 

Blackwood added that the county also transported inmates to and from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, where they conduct mental health hearings.

“We spend a lot of money - thousands of miles a month transporting inmates all. That’s a different cost. But our operational needs are much better served by where we’re placed, obviously. But they’re cars and vans. Not buses. Not big vehicles,” Blackwood said. 

Blackwood said that the average incarceration time pre-trial for inmates was 31 days in 2014, but has jumped to 52 days today. For felonies, the average is 47 days. 

“We’re involved in the misdemeanor confinement program right now. Which changes the dynamic if somebody can be sentenced. Instead of going to state prison, they actually can serve with us. And that can be a year,” the Sheriff said. 

The proposed new facility would have a built-in ability to dual occupy cell for certain necessary times, but the plan is for the facility to be designed for single occupancy. 

Sheriff Blackwood, who is up for re-election this year, addressed multiple concerns on the parts of local neighbors and family members who spoke at the public hearing. The list included family members currently living adjacent to the two women, Eleanor Hall Copeland and Betsy Hall Tilley, who are selling their family properties. The Town Barn was standing-room only for the public hearing. 

“There’s a question I want to address,” Blackwood said, responding to one relative who asked the local officials who would want a jail built next to their house. 

“Nobody in this room can honestly say they want this near their house. Including me,” Blackwood said. “I thought that needed to be answered. I don’t get to choose. I don’t get to buy. I don’t get to negotiate at all.” 

“To speak directly to the location, it’s my preference operationally that we be in close proximity,” the Sheriff continued. “It’s also been my preference for years that we move those operations out of Hillsborough. When you have that discussion, that changes somewhat as well. So this is a balancing act - a bb on a razor blade. Unfortunately, the families you’ve heard from tonight are impacted more than any of us will ever imagine. I get that. And I understand that.”

There will be a March 15 meeting in order to provide another forum for local residents concerned about the proposed facility, but the Town indicated that it would like to make any zoning decisions on the property in question before its March 26 meeting, which will be the final one for current Hillsborough Town Commissioner Brian Lowen.