Smithfield Town Council Approves New County Jail Site

Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell (right) addresses the Smithfield Town Council during a Public Hearing Tuesday night on the proposed new jail site on US 70 East. Smithfield Planning Director Stephen Wensman (left) looks on. Photo

In a unanimous vote, the Smithfield Town Council approved a rezoning request Tuesday night to allow the County of Johnston to construct a new detention facility on a 24.5 acre tract of land on US 70 East near Yelverton Grove Road.

The property is just outside the city limits but within the planning jurisdiction of the town.

The council approved a request to rezone the land to an Office and Institutional zoning district. Government buildings, including detention facilities, are allowed in those districts.

During a public hearing, William Ragsdale spoke in opposition of the rezoning.

“County commissioners are not a friend of the Town of Smithfield,” Ragsdale said, pointing out when the County buys a building the Town is no longer able to tax the property.  “The best thing you’ve ever done is deny the Buffalo Road (jail) site. Now it’s being developed into a subdivision.”

Ragsdale said the east side of Smithfield is the only remaining area small businesses have the opportunity to buy land.   Ragsdale said those entering Smithfield from US 70 east will now see a jail.  “The first thing you see is a jail. The property values will go down.  It looks bad to the Town of Smithfield for a jail to be on a main highway. A jail is not something of pride. It should be built in a discreet area.”

Ragsdale urged the town council to “stand up to county commissioners.”

“Don’t let them step on the Town of Smithfield. We need land for development and not a jail.  It’s a big county. they have other places they can go,” he said during a public comment section.

Mayor Pro Tem Travis Scott said Johnston County had been a good neighbor and the Town had an excellent working relationship with them.

Councilman David Stevens said he believed the new site would be beneficial and favorable to the town adding the county employees “have to eat somewhere.”

Councilman Marlon Lee questioned the need for a new jail and the appearance of the facility.  “A jail is a jail.  It can be a pretty building, but it’s a jail…  You can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig.”

Mark Lane, a resident on Yelverton Grove Road, spoke during the public hearing. Lane, a member of the Smithfield Planning Board, said he was not opposed to the location of the jail but was concerned about the impact of additional traffic at the intersection of US 70 and Yelverton Grove Road.  “It will create a problem there.”

Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell said he envisioned the jail being constructed on the back side of the property, a new sheriff’s office in the front and possibly a new 911 center.  However, he added, the ultimate decision is up to county commissioners.

Bizzell said the county looked at more than a dozen sites before selecting this location.  Addressing questions about why the County did not locate the jail on land they already own on Highway 210 near to the Landfill, Bizzell said that while some people did want a jail 5-1/2 miles down Highway 210, Smithfield Police would have to drive 5-1/2 miles out of town each time they carry someone to jail.  The US 70 site is closer and more practical he said.

Responding to Councilman Lee’s comment about why a jail was needed, Bizzell said the current jail was so overcrowded 53 inmates were being housed Tuesday night in Wayne and Sampson County Jails. The Johnston County Sheriff’s Office has budgeted $1.2 million this fiscal year to pay Wayne and Sampson Counties to house Johnston County inmates.  “We’re busting at the seams for space.”

“We want to keep the jail and government buildings in the county seat where they belong,” Sheriff Bizzell said to the council.  “It’s not good for the jail to be at the landfill.”

Mayor Andy Moore thanked the Sheriff for attending the public hearing and for his comments.  Mayor Moore agreed that government buildings and employees should stay in Smithfield.

Councilman Emery Ashley suggested once the new jail site opens it could help eliminate some of the parking issues in Downtown Smithfield.

The Council voted 7-to-0 to approve the rezoning for the jail site.