by Jay Lawson
The County of Herkimer and the Village of Herkimer have been sparring for 15 years at considerable taxpayer expense, according to Supreme Court Justice Erin Gall, who has ruled in favor of Herkimer County as to the siting of a new jail at a former P&C grocery property.
The Village of Herkimer had sought to keep a new jail from being constructed within its limits—even going so far as to enact zoning prohibitions, which Judge Gall summarily shot down.
The ruling held that the Village of Herkimer’s zoning restrictions cannot prevent the jail from being constructed.
The Supreme Court handed it down on Tuesday, January 26th,
Specifically, the County of Herkimer, with respect to its governmental duties, was found to be “immune” to such zoning prohibitions; meaning they simply don’t apply.
“After hearing six days of testimony regarding the siting of the new Herkimer County Jail, what was most impressive to the Court, was the exhaustive process undertaken by the County in searching for a suitable site,” Judge Gall wrote in her decision.
The Village of Herkimer had attempted to fight the county’s building of a jail, at the P&C site, on a variety of fronts.
The argument had been presented that Herkimer County was not “mandated” by New York State to build a new jail.
The Court disagreed in conclusive fashion.
“Every county in New York State is under a statutory obligation to maintain a county jail,” according to the Judge Gall, which cited New York State’s County Law.
Additionally, the court wrote that, “The care and custody of criminals is a function of government and the [state] Legislature has delegated this obligation to the counties, as each county is required to maintain a county jail.”
But can a municipality impede the construction of such a jail, as the Village of Herkimer has attempted through zoning restrictions?
The State Supreme Court said it cannot, in ruling against the village.
“It would be anomalous to allow a small village to impede the County in performance of an essential function of governmental duty,” Justice Gall wrote in her decision.
“A county jail serves an essential public purpose. A correctional facility that meets New York State’s requirements for the proper housing of inmates, like the proposed facility of the P&C site, will ensure that the inmates are satisfactorily housed, and that public safety is maintained because of the soundness of the facility, the manageable distance to transport inmates between court facilities, lock up, and the correctional facility, and the procedures in place to oversee inmates.
“The proposed facility will also serve other public interests, including reducing safety risks to correctional personnel, complying with a state mandate and state law, and replacing a deteriorating correctional facility that does not meet basic [New York State Commis-sion of Correction] building standards.
“Further, having a new jail in Herkimer County will serve all taxpayers in the County, because funds have been saved to construct the jail, and the bond for the facility is projected to be paid within 9 years.”
The Court also noted that testimony from County Administrator James Wallace evidenced that, once the facility is built, the taxpayers of Herkimer County will potentially save about $2 million per year after operational costs.
In commenting on the Village’s zoning change to prohibit jail construction, the Court wrote:
“The process of siting this jail, including this litigation, has exceeded 15 years. The Court of Appeals frowns on parochial regulation which ‘could otherwise foil the fulfillment of the greater public purpose of promoting’ the County’s public safety goals and obligations to follow state laws.”
And the harm to county and its taxpayers would be considerable, according to the court.
“Subjecting the County to this land use regulation would require the County to start over again [in its search for a jail site], which would likely mean that the project could be delayed many months or even years while the County would continue to be out of compliance with state law and [NYS Correction] Commis-sion mandates,” Judge Gall wrote.
“In addition, Herkimer County Jail has been ordered to board out the majority of its inmate population at a substantial cost…as the current jail cannot accommodate the County’s current and future needs.”
The ruling resulted from a one-week trial held in July of 2015 in Herkimer County Supreme Court.
“Herkimer County is very pleased with Supreme Court Justice Erin P. Gall’s decision that the County is immune from the Village of Herkimer’s zoning restrictions in connection with the construction of a new county jail at the former P&C site in the village of Herkimer, said Bernard Peplinski, chairman of the Herkimer County Legislature.
“Siting the jail at the P&C site in Herkimer has been before the Court since December 2011, and we are happy that we will be able to move forward with a new county jail that will save the property taxpayers of our County millions of dollars in boarding out costs,” he said.
“The Court noted the exhaustive process undertaken by the County in searching for a suitable site, the years of research and debate over where to site the facility, and the thorough, exhaustive and objective review of potential sites.
“The Court analyzed the objections put forth by the Village of Herkimer to building the jail at the P&C site, but concluded that those objections did not outweigh the greater public interest associated with a siting of a county jail at this location,” Chairman Peplinski said.
The Village of Herkimer had argued that “a jail in the village would change the character of the village and detract from [its] commercial, residential and industrial vibrancy.”
The Court noted “that the current jail has been located in the Village since 1834, rendering it a longstanding part of the Village’s community and character.”
The current jail had been downgraded by New York State over the years, starting in 2000, to limit its daily inmate occupancy currently to four.
This necessitated the finding of a new facility.
The current jail is located within the Village limits, next to the Herkimer County Courthouse and County Office Building.
The P&C site was selected, among numerous candidate sites, due to its convenient location in relation to those facilities.
It also allows for needed hook-ups to municipal water and sewer systems.