San Mateo County may need a new jail to ease its current cramped conditions but dozens gathered last night in Redwood City to learn about the potential site weren’t welcoming the facility with open arms.

The group peppered Sheriff Greg Munks and his jail planning staff with comments and questions over noise, safety, trash and why a new jail is preferable near the Maguire Correctional Facility on Winslow Street.

Redwood City is home to two sites on the county’s jail site short list, including the preferred location currently housing the motor pool and adjacent land. The site is the only suggestion that can be connected to the current facility either above or below ground and is accustomed to jail traffic, said consultant Roger Lichtman.

While the 3.5-acre property technically belongs to the county and wouldn’t require any agreements or purchases with Redwood City, residents and officials have still voiced concern over what impact a jail there would have on surrounding city land and residents.

The former Dodge dealership at 640 Veterans Blvd. is also on the list because of its close proximity and accessibility but it is odd-shaped, near a residential area and privately owned.

The county law library and small claims/county administrative building are on the potentially viable site list. The Malibu Grand Prix location on Blomquist Avenue was also looked at but is not viable because the 14-acre site is not for sale.

"There is no such thing as the ideal site,” Lichtman said.

While a number of jurisdictions considered for the new jail made it known they’re not interested, Redwood City and San Carlos have been the loudest public opponents. San Carlos Mayor Bob Grassilli sent a letter on behalf of the council — much of whom was surprised to even learn their city was being looked at — asking the county to leave them precious land for economic development. Residents will get the chance tonight to offer their opinions at a second community meeting.

Redwood City’s fight, on the other hand, began before the county even issued a formal list of viable, potentially viable and non-viable sites. The existing women’s correctional facility on Maple Street had long been considered a strong possibility for rebuilding but the county tipped its hand about a neighboring location when it went into confidential negotiations for the former Cemex site without first asking or informing the City Council. Munks said the rush was to make a deadline for $100 million in state construction money that was ultimately offered, but declined, because it came with too many strings attached.

"We realize we got off on the wrong foot,” Munks said last night.

The Cemex plan eventually went south with the owner pulling out of negotiations but bruised feelings and a grassroots opposition group remained.

Community resistance

The resistance was still evident last night as roughly 50 people from throughout the county, including a number of elected officials, crowded into the San Mateo Credit Union offices on Convention Way in Redwood City. Unlike a trio of community meetings last fall at which the Sheriff’s Office aimed to educate residents about the need for new facilities, this week’s gatherings focus on selling the location.

"There are advantages to having a jail in a community,” Munks said.

For Redwood City, the key is convincing residents and officials a new jail so close to the existing Maguire Correctional Facility and Hall of Justice makes sense. The closer the new building is, the less expensive it will be to construct and operate, Munks said.

Services like the kitchen, medical center and laundry won’t need duplication and the safety and expense of transporting inmates to court will be minimal to nothing if the jail is placed on a site like the motor pool, he said.

But some residents say Redwood City shoulders more than its share of the county’s correctional burden. Early comments in the meeting said the county should "spread the wealth” to other cities, like Burlingame, head "as far north as possible” and directly asked how to best demonstrate opposition. Others questioned the hit to property values, the safety of children and the aesthetic of a facility directly near residential areas such as the former Dodge dealership.

David Johnson, business development manager for the city of Menlo Park, asked why a short-listed site at 3633 Haven Ave. was not eliminated by being in a redevelopment area. Lichtman said he was unaware of the caveat which would likely take the location out of the running.

Wherever the jail is, the project is currently ballparked between $130 million and $140 million but much will depend on the final site chosen, Munks said.

Not an ‘expansion’

As currently conceptualized, the new facility will be five stories with capacity for between 650 and 750 beds and programming like re-entry services, job skills and mental health treatment. Much of those have been pushed out of the current buildings on Winslow Street by the need to house inmates anywhere they fit, from cells to classrooms. Those awaiting trial or deemed more serious offenders will still be housed at Maguire, connected to the Hall of Justice, for easy transfer to court. All releases and bookings will also be done at Maguire.

"We’re not looking to expand our system but to do a better job with what we have,” Munks said.

The jail ideally will also be located on a site that offers enough room for future expansion as needed. Maguire absorbed an expansion, adding a tower, but there is nowhere left to go. As of last week, Munks said Maguire had 980 inmates and the women’s facility 120 — beyond the 688 capacity for men and 90 inmate capacity for women.

The state budget deal reached Monday includes a $1.2 billion cut from corrections and while officials haven’t explained how those pencil out, Munks said it will likely mean a reduction of prison inmates and an increase in local populations. With that in mind, the need for a bigger facility is even more acute, he said.

Munks hopes to have a site narrowed in the next three months, chosen by next March, followed by approval of the Board of Supervisors and groundbreaking in 2011. Even with more beds in a new facility, the Sheriff’s Office will maintain the Minimum Security Facility in La Honda so that it may used for overflow if needed.

The county once had five correctional facilities but shuttered most due to budget constraints. The loss totaled 380 beds.

Michelle Durand can be reached by e-mail: michelle@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.

Info box: The second community outreach meeting on potential jail sites is 7 p.m. tonight at the San Carlos Library, 610 Elm St., San Carlos.

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