County scraps Columbia Falls jail plan; back to the drawing board

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The Cedar Palace’s employees had their last day on Friday. The building is now empty.

Facing stiff public opposition over a proposed jail site in Columbia Falls, the Flathead County commissioners on Tuesday voided a $2.6 million buy-sell agreement with Weyerhaeuser for 24 acres of open space and an office complex called the Cedar Palace.

The commissioners unanimously voted to send Weyerhaeuser a notice of unsatisfied contingency, a formal step needed to cancel the buy-sell agreement and get $130,000 in earnest money returned to the county.

County Administrator Mike Pence pointed out the cancellation of the agreement had “nothing to do with Weyerhaeuser.”

“They were excellent to work with,” he added.

The commissioners did not discuss their action, although Commissioner Phil Mitchell, joining the others via speakerphone, stressed the need for more time in selecting a site.

“We need to come together and decide were we’ll put a facility,” Mitchell said.

The commissioners had conducted two community meetings — one in Columbia Falls and another in Kalispell — and also held a work session last week as part of their due-diligence process. At all the meetings Columbia Falls residents voiced their opposition of having a jail in their community.

During the work session several of Flathead County’s district judges also expressed concern about courtroom security at the Justice Center, especially if the Sheriff’s Office were to relocate off-site.

Columbia Falls residents opposed the site on several fronts. They claimed it was too close to schools, would be a drag on the city’s image and would hurt the tax base, among other things.

They also claimed the county simply didn’t have a well-thought out plan. The cost of a new jail ranged from $50 million to as much as $100 million, some residents claimed.

There was also the feeling that the county shouldn’t give Weyerhaeuser anything, since it laid off hundreds of workers when it merged with Plum Creek.

Now it’s back to square one to figure out a long-term solution for chronic overcrowding at the existing jail at the Justice center.

Other off-site locations also are being explored, including 40 acres of county property off Willow Glen Drive in Kalispell and 14 acres of county land at the former Kalispell Feed and Grain site south of Kalispell.

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