2016-03-24 / Front Page

Sheriff pulls plug on justice center project

By Nancy A. Cavanaugh
ROCKINGHAM — On the eve of the public hearing for the Southern Vermont Justice Center zoning application, Sheriff Keith Clark called the Planning and Zoning Office and rescinded the application, according to a press release. Clark also announced that he was no longer pursuing a justice center.

“The U.S. Marshal’s office called yesterday and said they no longer wanted to move forward with financial support,” said Clark on Tuesday. “They gave a number of reasons, but I’m still not sure why they changed their mind.

“Much of the project was designed around them,” he continued. “Without their support there is no way to finance the project.”

The U.S. Marshal’s Office did not return a call seeking comment.

The sheriff had planned on putting a $23 million justice center on a plot of land just north of I-91 Exit 6 in Rockingham.

The plans for the project included detention, rehabilitation and transitional housing for state and federal prisoners awaiting trial. In addition, the justice center would offer education, law enforcement training, regional dispatch, criminal and justice data sharing.

The project, then known as the Liberty Mill Justice Center, had initially been focused on the former Chemco building in the Riverfront 14 zone in Bellows Falls.

Clark chose not to move forward with this location due to the costs associated with working on a building from the 1920s and the lack of support from the community.

A number of petitions, binding and nonbinding, had been presented to the Town of Rockingham requesting zoning bylaw changes and articles asking voters if they supported a justice center being built in Rockingham.

Based on the outcome of the vote, the Rockingham Selectboard made the non-binding vote binding when after passing a resolution disallowing any financial or staff support for the justice center.

“The federal government and state government have said they won’t do projects in a community that doesn’t support them,” said Selectboard Chair Lamont Barnett. “[The resolution] essentially made the vote binding.We hoped it would help the process.

“We have much bigger things to worry about than a project that the residents don’t want,” he continued.

Bonnie North, president of the citizens group Progress for Rockingham, is pleased with the work the community was able to do together.

“Although the progressive reform of a broken justice system is something literally everyone here supports, we are gratified that this ill-conceived project has met its demise.  Spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on building a facility to hold 155 people against their will is not progressive reform,” said North.

“If the Sheriff of Windham County is sincere in his reform mission, we welcome him to lend even greater support to the existing Bellows Falls Justice Center, which is underfunded and understaffed,” she continued. “In the long run, this united effort by the citizens of Rockingham has shown how an engaged community can intelligently utilize the democratic process and ultimately be heard.”

Clark is still interested in pursuing the programming that was planned to go along with the justice center.

“I think the programming is still necessary,” he said. “This doesn’t mean they’re not still a need. We just need to find out how to get there.”

There will be a public hearing on April 5 at 6 p.m. regarding two zoning bylaw changes that would prevent a justice center from being built in Rockingham.

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