People living near the site of Forsyth County's proposed new jail turned what was to be an informational session about the facility's design Tuesday into a heated discussion of its location.
Many of those concerned included residents of the Wyngate subdivision. They oppose the detention center site because of its proximity to their homes, which in some places is as close as 72 feet.
One resident asked architect Jeff Pieper if his company had designed a facility that was so near a residential area.
Pieper said of the 14 detention centers Pieper O'Brien Herr has built, none were quite that close to homes.
Wyngate is between Veterans Memorial and Hutchinson Road, near the Lanier Crossing Shopping Center at the southern end of the Cumming city limits.
Tuesday night's session drew a crowd of about 40 people to the atrium of the county administration building downtown. Residents' persistence to ask questions of county officials changed the scope of the meeting.
Wyngate resident Holly Schneider asked Pieper if the design for the new jail on 33 acres off Veterans Memorial Boulevard is restricted to that particular location.
Pieper said that while it "would take a serious redesign to make it happen [at another location], the base-line plan for the jail could be relocated."
But the property was bought more than a year ago for $7.1 million. Unless a November bond referendum to fund a $75 million, 480-bed facility is voted down at the polls, plans call for the new facility to be built next to Wyngate.
Commissioner David Richard told residents the "only chance you have to move the jail from this location is to defeat the bond referendum. If the bond passes, the jail gets built there."
Residents have organized efforts to oppose the Nov. 4 referendum through a Web site called www.movethejail.org.
Wyngate resident Clark Montoya asked Richard about property near a landfill in north Forsyth, which the county also considered for the jail last summer.
Richard said landowners in that area opposed the plan when county officials inquired about buying the site.
He also said a lack of infrastructure at the north Forsyth location would be a big obstacle.
"There is no county water and no county sewer near that property," Richard said. "We would have to run at least a mile of pipe to make that happen, and that would be millions of dollars."
Richard added that water and sewer improvements can be funded only through water payments.
"We've been asking everyone to cut down on county water use," he said. "Everyone's done a wonderful job of that.
The problem is, when you cut back on your water use, you cut back on water payments."
Sheriff Ted Paxton cautioned residents that no matter where a new jail is built, the longer the county waits, the more
likely the federal government could step in to mandate the facility.
"If the referendum does not pass, sooner or later we could find ourselves under the directive of federal courts," Paxton said. "That will take the decision process out of the local citizenry."
Paxton said he understood the concerns of Wyngate residents.
"I can only speak from the standpoint of telling you what we need," he said, adding that the jail needs to be built regardless of location.
The new jail facility would replace the existing jail, which is also off Veterans Memorial though closer to downtown Cumming. That structure, built in the mid-1970s, is crowded and the county is forced to house inmates in other parts of the state.
"The main thing I would be concerned about as far as location, is the proximity to the courthouse," Paxton said.
"The longer we keep these individuals out of a secure environment, transporting them to and from the courthouse, the more opportunity for events to occur like assaults on deputies and potential escapes."
Forsyth County resident Cindy Hagen cited safety concerns as well.
"I think Wyngate and the rest of the county will be safer as a result of the jail being close to the courthouse," she said.
In retrospect, though, Hagen said holding town hall meetings before buying the land would have been a good idea "so people could have input earlier in the process."
Along with Paxton, Commissioner Linda Ledbetter, County Manager Rhonda Poston-O'Connor and Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt were on hand to field questions.
Gravitt told residents he supported building a new jail for the county, but he did not agree with the method of paying for it through general obligation bond money.
"I tried to get commissioners to buy a new jail with sales tax money," Gravitt said. "They won't listen to me ... I support the sheriff in buying a new jail, but not the way they're talking about paying for it."