City leaders approve land permit for Douglas County jail expansion, say vote is ‘not an endorsement’

photo by: Chad Lawhorn

The Douglas County Jail, 3601 E 25th St., is pictured on April 7, 2020

Though city leaders voted to approve plans and permits associated with the county’s expansion of its jail, some commissioners said they were not endorsing the project.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted 4-1, with Commissioner Courtney Shipley opposed, to the institutional development plan and special use permit for the expansion of the Douglas County Jail, 3601 E. 25th St. The nearly $30 million expansion of the jail, which the Douglas County Commission authorized in January despite strong opposition from some residents, calls for an approximately 13,000-square-foot addition that will allow the jail to house between 84 and 112 additional inmates and address overcrowding issues that were present before the COVID-19 pandemic. Local activists are currently suing to stop the county from funding the expansion through a 1994 referendum after the county failed to get voters’ approval for a sales tax increase in 2018.

City commissioners all said they received many phone calls and emails opposing the jail expansion but emphasized they were limited in what factors to consider when deciding whether or not to approve the plan. Commissioner Lisa Larsen did express concern about the approximately $6 million that county leaders have said it will take annually to operate the expansion. However, Larsen said that based on the factors the City Commission had to consider, she could not vote to deny the plan.

“Our feelings about the jail are not part of this decision-making process, but we need to stick with what we are legally required to look at,” Larsen said.

The plan had to be in compliance with all applicable code and permit regulations. The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission had reviewed the plan and voted unanimously at its meeting on April 22 to recommended the plan for city approval. Both the Planning Commission and the City Commission had to review the plan based on several factors, including whether it complied with applicable provisions of land development code, was compatible with adjacent uses, would cause a substantial decrease in value of nearby property, and whether the proposed plan provided adequate assurance of continuing maintenance, among other criteria.

Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei agreed and said he thought it would be unfair if the public took the City Commisson’s vote as demonstrating a particular position on the county’s jail expansion. Commissioner Stuart Boley also emphasized that point, and similar to Larsen, said that he was concerned about the operational expenses for the jail expansion potentially increasing property taxes for local taxpayers. Still, Boley said that based on the city’s land use code, the City Commission was “obliged” to provide the permit.

“I want to make sure that people understand that as we vote on this tonight, this is not an endorsement of the jail expansion,” Boley said. “We are constrained by our land use code to only look at certain factors.”

In the wake of local and nationwide protests, the City Commission began its meeting Tuesday by making comments against police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S. Shipley, who voted against the plan and permit request, said that the issues discussed, such as overpolicing and systemic racism, were relevant to the City Commission’s decision. She still recognized the city was limited in its purview, and said that she hoped those who had communicated with the City Commission about the jail expansion would continue to participate in discussions regarding the Lawrence Police Department.

“We have no control over the county; we have no control over the sheriff,” Shipley said. “We do have input on what our local police do.”

Mayor Jennifer Ananda made the main statement at the beginning of the meeting regarding police brutality and racism, and she called for two city boards to start working on projects related to racial equity. Ananda said that given her comments earlier, her approval of the plan and land use permit was a begrudging one.

“This is a painful conversation to have in light of the comments that were made at the top of the meting, because this is not where I want to be, not the decision that I want to be making,” Ananda said.

Ananda added that perhaps the City Commission’s decision could be a moot point depending on the result of the Douglas County Commission election in November.

City Commission Meeting 06/02/20


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