2016-01-15 / Front Page

BF residents air concerns over proposed justice center

By Allan Stein

BELLOWS FALLS — Bellows Falls resident Margaret Perry said she thinks the village is too small a place to locate a federal detention and rehabilitation center.

"It's presence will overwhelm anything that's here. I think it needs to be in a bigger place," Perry said during a public forum on the Liberty Mill Justice Center proposal of Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark.

More than 50 area residents attended the two-hour "Voices of Rockingham Residents" forum held Thursday at Windham Antiques in Bellows Falls.

Facilitator Suzanne Groenwold said the forum was the first of several planned so that residents will have a voice, whether for or against the facility proposal.

"The purpose is just to gather input. We just want to keep the momentum going," Groenwold said.

The intent of the first meeting was to focus on the location of the proposed justice center with questions and concerns gathered from residents, Groenwold said.

Using a flip chart, Groenwold wrote down questions and concerns from residents regarding the project's impact and the proposed location of the justice center at the former Chemco building on Paper Mill Road.

Residents also pitched questions for the sheriff asking how the village would stand to benefit from his proposal.

Clark said his vision is to turn the empty 74,000-square-foot building at 204 Paper Mill Road into a justice center housing both state and federal prisoners awaiting trial. The estimated cost of the project is $23 million. 

The sheriff said the facility would provide 120 secure units for male prisoners, 20 units for female detainees, and 35 transitional housing units. The project would be largely grant funded and provide around 60 new jobs.

In various public forums the sheriff has touted the proposed facility as a private business that would provide benefit the community in terms of job creation and rehabilitation programs for detainees. 

Residents of the village have voiced strong public opposition to the sheriff's proposal, saying it will pose safety risks to the village and chase away private business investment.

On Thursday, the Rockingham Selectboard voted to include a ballot article by petition on the May town meeting warning that asks to give voters the authority to decide the location of the justice center. The ballot measure would be non-binding if approved.

Bellows Falls village trustees on Tuesday postponed inclusion of the same petition on the May village meeting warning until after Rockingham selectboard members had voted on it.

Another citizens petition seeks to change permitted uses in the Riverfront 14 zone, where the former Chemco plant sits.

The petition will require the signatures of 5 percent of registered voters to be placed on the warning of a spectial town meeting.

At Thursday's public forum, Bellows Falls resident Reed Webster said the placement of the justice center in Bellows Falls would happen at the expense of recreational fishing along the Connecticut River.

"It would be a huge loss as people come from hundreds of miles to fish that location," he said.

Bellows Falls resident Mary Lynch said the facility would diminish property values.

"We've heard about the positives. I don't know how positive they are," Lynch said. "How is it going to benefit the town?"

The proximity of the justice center to Bellows Falls would pose yet another problem, said Doug Anarino, a member of the newly formed citizens group, Rockingham For Progress, which opposes the sheriff's building conversion plan.

"It is really a nightmare waiting to happen," said Anarino, who foresees the schools faced with stricter lockdown rules. 

Other residents voiced concerns about the need for a fenced perimeter around the facility, the environmental impact of the project to the area, and the financial cost to taxpayers.

"There is no fallback to anybody but the taxpayers of the county and Rockingham. You're talking potentially a $20 million bill," said Bellows Falls resident Lamont Barnett.

In the meantime, an independent structural analysis of the former Chemco building will determine its suitability for commercial  use. The results of the study, completed Jan. 11, are expected in about a week.

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