Thursday, July 18, 2024

Whatever happened to . . . New Hanover County’s $5.4 million land purchase for jail expansion?

Within a few years of completing its new detention center, the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office was already dealing with overcrowding. This led to the $5 million purchase of nearby land for an expansion -- that never got built.

Ten years ago, New Hanover County spent millions on land to expand the Sheriff's Office Detention Center -- but the land remains untouched. What happened? (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Ten years ago, New Hanover County spent millions on land to expand the Sheriff’s Office Detention Center — but the land remains untouched. What happened? (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Brunswick, New Hanover, and Pender counties have all struggled with jail overcrowding. Brunswick has expanded its detention center, while Pender struggles to manage its population through outsourcing. So, what happened to New Hanover’s plans for expansion?

RELATED: Pender County’s jail is overcrowded and aging. There are no plans to replace it

In 2008, New Hanover County spent $5,380,00 to purchase 97.82 acres of land directly adjacent to the current detention center for a possible expansion.

For over a decade, the land has remained untouched, not because of a reduction in the level of crime, but due to changes in how the county handles criminals.

A brief history of overcrowding

Until the early 2000s, the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office housed inmates at a relatively small facility in downtown Wilmington, located on North Fourth Street. The facility became increasingly overcrowded and, as the population of the county began to grow more rapidly, New Hanover County decided to build a new facility on county-owned land off Blue Clay Road (not to be confused with the state-run minimum security correctional facility on Division Drive, near the Wilmington International Airport).

Construction began in 2000 – it was initially hoped work would take around a year and a half and cost around $26 million. Repeated delays, including difficulty with construction work in the wetland area, pushed the cost over $50 million.

When the facility opened in 2004, it was already headed towards overcrowding. According to the minutes of the county Board of Commissioners, the jail building could accommodate a maximum of 1,000 beds. Built with 648, the county expanded the jail in 2007, adding 25 beds.

The additional beds did little to mitigate overcrowding and, the same year, the county considered the purchase of additional land.

Purchasing land

The nearly-100-acre property can been seen to the southwest of the current detention center. The property appears as five narrow properties running roughly north-south, and the misshaped 'home plate' beneath them. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Google Maps)
The nearly-100-acre, $5.4 million property can be seen to the southwest of the current detention center. The property appears as five narrow properties running roughly north-south, and the misshaped ‘home plate’ beneath them. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Google Maps)

In November of 2007, the Board of Commissioners voted to purchase 97.82 acres from Paul G. Burton and his steel company.

The land was to provide “future jail expansion and judicial satellite facilities,” that could not be built on the existing jail property because it was mitigated wetlands. According to the project manager at the time, Max Maxwell, the land could also provide a location for a future fire station, library, or park area as the northern part of the county continued to develop.

A major concern was cost.

The land had just been reappraised by the county, dramatically increasing its value. In 2006, it was valued at $269,904. In 2007, when the county considered purchasing the land, its value had increased almost five-fold to $1,223,520.

During the meeting, the county’s tax administrator explained that the county values acreage on an inverse scale – that is, the more acres in a parcel, the less valuable each individual acre is. For a sizeable parcel like Burton’s nearly-100-acre lot, this created a discrepancy between tax value and real-world value.

According to the tax administrator in 2007, property in the area of the jail was being sold for between $45,000 and $55,000 per acre, which put the county’s purchase price just two dollars and two cents under the maximum by paying $54,998.98 per acre.

Delaying the need for expansion

Burton’s land was purchased in 2008, so what happened to the expansion?

In part, the need for satellite judicial facilities was reduced by the advent of inexpensive and effective video conferencing. But a larger piece of the story has been the county’s efforts to reduce the jail’s population.

“the county has taken deliberate and innovative efforts to control the jail population to delay the need for expansion.”

– Lisa Wurtzbacher, New Hanover County Chief Financial Officer

According to Lisa Wurtzbacher, the county’s chief financial officer, “In 2008, New Hanover County purchased this property, which is next to the current parcel of land where the jail is located, to allow for future expansion of jail facilities. To date, the county has taken deliberate and innovative efforts to control the jail population to delay the need for expansion.”

New Hanover County Spokesperson Jessica Loeper added, “A few of the innovative programs that Lisa alludes to are the Sheriff’s Office Community1 Program, Community Justice Services (CJS) pre-trial release program, the county’s partnership with LINC, DSS (Department of Social Services) and the courts for drug treatment and jail diversion program.”

Those programs work in various ways:

  • The Community1 Program was created in May of last year by New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon, and is funded solely by the Sheriff’s Office. The program uses one full-time dedicated detention officer and relies on at least 40 local agencies. The goal is reduced recidivism; the program aims to assist at least 150 people in 2018.
  • The Community Justice Services works in a variety of ways to “divert” misdemeanor cases for young adults, as well as sending drug- and alcohol-related cases to treatment instead of incarceration, and overseeing pre-trial release. The latter is explicitly designed to ensure the “fair and efficient use of detention facilities and the fiscal responsibility of taxpayer dollars,” according to the county.
  • LINC, a non-profit run by Frankie Roberts, provides transitional housing, job coaching, mentoring and other services to inmates after their release. (You can read more about LINC and its urban farm here.)

What’s next?

Despite being larger than many other facilities in the region, New Hanover County currently has fewer detention facility beds per capita than neighboring Brunswick and Pender counties. The number of available beds is reduced by agreements to hold federal detainees, taking up 70 beds.

At present, the county is betting on fighting recidivism and hoping that treatment will stem the tide of opioid-related property crimes. There are no current plans to expand the jail and the Sheriff’s Office has said that while the facility is consistently near capacity, overcrowding is not a pressing issue.

There are also no current plans to follow up on suggestions made by the county’s 2008 suggestion that the land next to the jail could serve other purposes, like a library extension or other public space.

As northern New Hanover County continues to grow – along with the region as a whole – it remains to be seen if the land becomes a park or a prison, so to speak, or if it will simply remain vacant.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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