Lancaster County commissioners have remained vague on planning the design of a new jail despite voting Wednesday to close next week’s $3 million land purchase for the facility.
“Not sure yet,” Republican County Commissioner Josh Parsons said in response to a question from Lancaster NAACP branch president Blanding Watson about how the county will select an advisory committee for the design process. Watson was present at Wednesday’s meeting for a resolution from commissioners recognizing Black History Month. He has in the past recognized criminal justice reform as a priority for the local NAACP.
“I mean, everything was focused on acquiring the land. There has been a group working on this land acquisition,” Parsons said. “At some point there will be a proposed schedule and then a proposed working group. But whatever the form of this working group, there will clearly be many opportunities for discussion.
The measure approved Wednesday gives County Commissioner Ray D’Agostino, who led the county’s land acquisition effort for the new county jail, the authority to sign the closing documents for the 78-acre farm owned by the Kreider family since 2005.
The closure culminates county efforts to find a suitable site for a new jail, which began in earnest in early 2020, D’Agostino said. In May, county officials presented a geographic survey that sought large undeveloped properties near the county courthouse in downtown Lancaster. That study, officials said, indicated the Kreider property was the best option.
The tree-lined banks of the Conestoga River surround the property on three sides, making it unusually isolated from other residents and the general public, county officials argued. Of the large undeveloped properties in the county near Lancaster city officials identified during their search, the Kreider property is among the closest to the courthouse, about 1.5 miles away.
The two parties to the sale are also finalizing an agreement that allows the county to temporarily lease the property to the Kreiders. This would allow them to continue farming and using their residence on the property until construction of the new prison begins.
“This discussion about what to do with prison has been going on for a very, very long time,” Parsons said at the commissioners’ meeting on Wednesday. “It’s really very important today to acquire the property.”
The property had been on the county radar long before last year. In 2008, county officials had identified the property as a potential site for a new jail.
In 1987, the Lancaster County Solid Waste Authority, then known as LARA, went ahead with purchasing the property to install an incinerator. These plans also failed.
Costs and next steps
Throughout the land acquisition process, D’Agostino and Parsons insisted that the county would not begin design plans until it secured a property.
The commissioners also previously said the committee could include people from outside the county government.
Last week, the commissioners’ approval of a new $13 million reserve fund for future capital projects revealed some basic timelines and estimated costs for the development of a new prison.
A preliminary list of projects included an estimate of $100 million to build the new jail, starting in 2026. Additionally, the county plans to spend approximately $2.1 million on the design and development of the jail. by 2024, according to the list.
On Wednesday, Parsons said the prison project was ineligible for American Rescue Plan Act funding under current rules, but “there are rumors that Congress may pass a bill to allow you at least to use some of the ARPA for capital projects, but that hasn’t happened yet,” Parsons said.
The ARPA Act allocated $106 million to the county and $39.5 million to the city of Lancaster.
But the county may be able to use ARPA funds for projects related to the new prison site, such as efforts to restore the adjacent Conestoga River, Parsons said.