ROCKINGHAM >> For months now Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark has been trying to sell residents and town officials on his idea for a new justice center in Rockingham. In the end, it was lack of support from an outside entity that convinced him to withdraw the proposal.
"It came down to financial, the U.S. Marshall decided they would not support the project," said Clark. "Without their commitment we could not make it work financially."
The surprise announcement came over to the Windham County Sheriff's office Tuesday afternoon when the U.S. Marshall's office reported they would not support the project. Clark notified the Rockingham zoning administrator that the Sheriff's Office was requesting to rescind the previously applied for zoning application and will no longer pursue building a justice center.
Earlier this month Clark was offered a $300,000 anonymous donation that was to be used for the purchase of the 11.5-acre site located near Exit 6 on Route 5, where he planned to construct a justice center.
"I never accepted a donation," said Clark. He added that he would notify the donor that he no longer needs the contribution.
Furthermore, the sheriff will not be accepting the donation of funds that were going to be used to purchase the "Highlands" Property at Exit 6 in Rockingham.
"Right up until today they said they needed more pre-trial beds in Vermont; today they decided they no longer need that," Clark said about his conversation with the U.S. Marshall. Clark said officials from the U.S. Marshall's office originally said they needed 60 to 70 detainee beds in Vermont and would financially support the developmental and construction aspects of the project.
"They would have been our largest source of revenue at this given point," said Clark.
The facility Clark had proposed to build was a $22 to $23 million criminal detainee/resource facility. The space looked to hold 155 beds — 120 secured for either federal or state male detainees, 20 for female detainees at either the state or federal level, and 35 for those that are "transitioning" out or that are eligible for the electronic monitoring program. Clark has said the building would be "building secure" rather than "site secure," which means no barbed fencing, guard tower, floodlights or large open spaces surrounding the building. Instead, security would be held within all or a portion of the building.
This facility would have been the new home for the Windham County Sheriff's office and also would have offered a variety of social services to offenders. These included assessment, case management, social services, education, veteran support, mental health and supervised visitation for non-custodial parents. Clark also envisioned including features such as electronic monitoring, a CJIS data center, a regional dispatch center and regional law enforcement training.
"I'm disappointed, we're still trying to figure out what we're going to do next and would like to continue to work on the program aspects," said Clark.
The U.S. Marhsall's office in Burlingon was not available for comment by press time.
"I was a little bit shocked and in disbelief, but certainly pleased," said Suzanne Groenewold, of Bellows Falls, about Clark's announcement.
Groenewold and other members of the community have held public forums, formed groups and participated in social media discussions where they have expressed their concerns and opposition to the proposed detention center.
"I believe that the RFP (Rockingham For Progress) and Voices of Rockingham worked really hard to get the message out to the community why this facility would not work here because of size and potential impact," said Groenewold. "When it comes down to it, I think the community spoke out with their voices and with the vote. We were hitting as many points as possible."
Verified petitions cycled through town, showing results of heavy opposition to the proposed detention center coming to town. The Town Clerk received a certified voter petition and then the Planning Commission held various meetings and one public hearing to make technical edits and then incorporate the public's opinions.
The Petition requests a bylaw change for the definition of a municipal building to exclude "any facility in which more than eighteen (18) people are incarcerated or held for short-term psychological evaluation at any time or in which any person or persons are incarcerated for seven (7) or more consecutive days or held for short-term psychological evaluation for thirty (30) or more consecutive days."
The Planning Commission planned to hold a public hearing Wednesday evening to discuss the proposed justice center. The Town Clerk's office confirmed that meeting is canceled because the justice center was the only item on the agenda.
"I hope the Select Board and zoning application make that amendment so we can forever say no," said Groenewold.
Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275