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Fayette County OKs buying land from development council for new jail

| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Fayette County commissioners voted on Tuesday to buy a tract of land from the Fay-Penn Economic Development Council for $1.25 million for a new county jail.

Commissioners Vincent Zapotosky and Al Ambrosini approved the purchase of 58 acres in North Union and Dunbar townships to build a jail, estimated to cost $31 million, to replace a facility built in 1889 in Uniontown.

Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink voted against buying the land, saying the site was intended for economic development, “not a jail.”

The action took place at the end of a contentious five-hour meeting as many citizens packed into the board's meeting room questioned the move.

“Are you really serious about you are going to build a prison on a swampland or sinkhole?” asked Geraldine Mazza of Franklin Township.

Some residents claim the site near Laurel Mall is undermined, prone to flooding and lacks adequate sewage.

The county will seek a geotechnical study to examine subsurface conditions and materials at the site, Ambrosini said.

Mazza questioned a potential future claim on possible mineral rights.

The county will have 90 days to perform necessary record searches, obtain financing and close on the property.

“Whenever you enter into a sales agreement, then you do the search. If you don't like what the search says, then you don't go through with the agreement,” said John Cupp, a county solicitor.

Mary Beth Homistek of Uniontown asked why the commissioners planned to buy 58 acres for a three-acre facility.

“The owner chooses not to sell it piece by piece,” Ambrosini replied.

Homistek questioned calling the facility the Fayette County Justice and Rehabilitation Center.

“We are going to rehabilitate people. We have to reduce the recidivism,” Ambrosini said.

Speaking in favor of the project was Frank Rutherford, a representative of the United Mine Workers of America, the union that represents county corrections officers.

“They are responsible for the care, custody and control of some of the worst inmates in the state,” he said.

A new jail is needed, Rutherford said, to protect employees and to thwart lawsuits from inmates because of “deplorable conditions.”

“This jail is worse than third world country jails,” Rutherford said.

Zimmerlink said that some corrections officers told her they do not think a new jail should be built, but they could not go on record for fear of losing their jobs.

Last week, a rally was held outside the courthouse and election bureau in an effort to get a referendum on the primary ballot to halt construction of the jail and to consider options. The group said they collected more than 3,500 signatures, although the solicitor for the election bureau previously said such a referendum is not permitted under state law.

“I'm not real concerned about how they (inmates) have to live,” Donald Coleman of Lemont Furnace told commissioners.

“Why wouldn't you want to listen to those people who signed the petition? ... Let the people vote on it. Let's start all over and let the people get involved.”

Terry Kriss, co-owner of the historic Meason House, less than 800 feet away from the proposed jail site, said he had polled the majority of the Mt. Braddock residential and business community. “Everyone signed that petition,” he said.

“It should never be permitted in an industrial park, taking up 58 acres of prime, tax-generating property intended for private investment and business growth,” Kriss said.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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