The Flathead County Commission has dumped a plan to build a new jail in Columbia Falls after overwhelming public opposition from local residents against the proposal.
On Oct. 10, the commission voted unanimously not to purchase from Weyerhaeuser 24 acres of land and a 35,000-square-foot office building along 12th Avenue West in Columbia Falls. The county had proposed using the office building as the new sheriff’s office and building the new jail next to it.
The decision not to move forward with a buy/sell agreement for the piece of land came after a pair of public meetings during which many Columbia Falls residents voiced their displeasure with a proposal to put the new jail in their town.
Flathead County has been grappling with an overcrowded jail for a number of years. The current facility in Kalispell was built in 1984 to hold about 60 people and has had to be expanded numerous times due to crowding. After a recent renovation, it can now hold 164 inmates, but Sheriff Chuck Curry said soon that will not be enough. The county is looking to build a new 260-bed jail in the coming years.
During a public meeting on Sept. 25 at the Columbia Falls Junior High School, no member of the public spoke in favor of the plan, although many agreed a new jail needs to be built somewhere. Local residents were especially concerned about the close proximity to a number of schools, residential neighborhoods and senior living facilities. Others worried that a jail would slow development in the community, and two real estate agents said that some people have stopped looking at homes in Columbia Falls ever since the commission floated the idea of building a jail in town.
“I am for a new jail,” said Columbia Falls resident Cameron Darby. “I just don’t want it in my town.”
County Administrator Mike Pence said the commissioners took the opinions of all stakeholders into consideration when determining if they would move forward with the proposal. Pence said the commission also thanked Weyerhaeuser for their work in negotiating the deal.
The decision to not purchase the land means Flathead County is once again looking for a site to build a new jail. The county commission has looked at a number of potential jail sites in in recent months, including 40 acres of land off Willow Glen Drive south of Kalispell and 14 acres of land near the old Kalispell Feed and Grain facility near U.S. Highway 93. Last year, the county nearly purchased the old Wal-Mart in Evergreen to convert it into a jail, but another buyer offered more money for the property.