Columbia Falls Residents Speak Out Against Plan to Move Jail

Flathead County looking to purchase Weyerhaeuser property for new jail

By Justin Franz
The former Cedar Palace administrative office in Columbia Falls on Sept. 13, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

COLUMBIA FALLS – Dozens of Columbia Falls residents spoke out against a proposal to build a new county jail in their community during a public hearing on Sept. 25.

The Flathead County Commission has entered into a buy/sell agreement with Weyerhaeuser to purchase 24 acres of land and a 35,000-square-foot office building along 12th Avenue West in Columbia Falls. The office building, also known as the Cedar Palace, would become the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and a new jail would be constructed adjacent to it.

The commission has until the end of October to decide if it will purchase the land for $2.6 million.

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.

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.

During the public hearing at Columbia Falls Junior High School, Commissioner Gary Krueger said the Weyerhaeuser property was under consideration because it has water and sewer services and an existing office building for the sheriff’s office. It also has plenty of room for a new 60,000-square-foot jail that could cost upwards of $50 million.

Local residents, however, were less than receptive to the idea. During the two-and-a-half-hour public meeting, 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. One man at the meeting held a sandwich board that said “No Jail In Our Town.”

“I am for a new jail,” said Columbia Falls resident Cameron Darby. “I just don’t want it in my town,”

Other speakers worried that a jail would slow development in the community, and two realtors 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. Still others took issue with the county buying property from Weyerhaeuser a year after the company closed two of its mills in Columbia Falls.

“Hundreds of people were laid off by Weyerhaeuser and having the county line its pockets by buying this land is a slap in the face to this community,” said Columbia Falls resident Tom Pullen.

Curry said he understood the community’s safety concerns, but he assured residents that the new jail would be safe, adding that the current jail is next to a residential neighborhood and school and there have never been any issues. He added that there would also be an increased law enforcement presence in Columbia Falls if the jail and sheriff’s office were to move.

“I promise you, we’re good neighbors,” he said.

Krueger said that the plan to build a new jail in Columbia Falls was not a done deal, and the community would be included every step of the way.

“We will take into consideration everything that was said tonight,” Krueger said.

A second public hearing is being held on Tuesday, Sept. 26 in the Flathead County Commission chambers in Kalispell at 6 p.m.

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