EVANSTON — The Uinta County Commission Chambers were again full for the regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 21, when commissioners voted unanimously to pass a land transfer resolution authorizing the transfer of approximately 63 acres of county property located adjacent to the Bear River State Park to CoreCivic for the intended purpose of constructing an immigration detention/processing center. The resolution authorizes commission chair Eric South to “execute any and all legal documents lawfully and reasonably requested to convey whatever right, title and interest Uinta County” has in the land and “sign any other documents necessary to transfer” the property.
A Memorandum of Terms regarding the property sale between the county and CoreCivic lists the purchase price as $5,000 per acre. At that rate, the total purchase price of 63 acres would be $315,000.
Representatives from CoreCivic; Municipal Capital Markets Group (MCM), the financial group involved with the project; and Butler-Cohen, the design and building firm working on the project, were present at the meeting. Marcelo Ariola, CoreCivic Managing Director of Project Development, spoke briefly about the resolution, listing the purchase price of $5,000 per acre. Ariola said the Purchase and Sale Agreement between CoreCivic and Uinta County allows for an inspection period of six months with an option to extend that period for an additional six months prior to final closing on the sale. The project remains contingent on CoreCivic securing a contract for the facility from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson-Kallas said two separate appraisals had been conducted on the land. The initial appraisal arrived at a price of $4,000 per acre; however, Howieson-Kallas said commissioners felt that appraisal calculated a cost based on the land’s current state and not its intended use. Therefore, a second appraisal was done to arrive at the $5,000 per acre price. According to Howieson-Kallas, the price the county paid for the land when purchasing it from the state about a decade ago was approximately $550 per acre.
In a continuation of what has become commonplace at public meetings concerning the ICE facility, numerous people spoke both for and against the proposal at Tuesday’s meeting. Many of the comments were similar to those voiced at any number of meetings over the past nearly three years since the proposal was first mentioned in the spring of 2017.
However, some new concerns were raised. Evanston resident Joice Mander asked if the property had ever been listed as being available for purchase and said other businesses should have been given the opportunity to purchase the land, even suggesting she knew of another potential buyer that would meet or better the agreed upon price.
Questions regarding the price were also raised by residents Eric Mander and Gary Ellingford, both of whom said they believed the price was well below what should be paid for the property. Ellingford went so far as to state he believes the property could sell for as much as $25,000 per acre.
Amanda Manchester read aloud a letter posted online by the ACLU of Wyoming on Tuesday. The letter calls on Wyoming’s five elected officials to revisit the issue and determine if a detention center does in fact meet the definition of a “prison, jail or incarceration facility.” Wyoming law dictates such facilities must have the approval of all five statewide elected officials.
At the request of the county commissioners, Howieson-Kallas conferred with the state’s attorney general in 2018. At that time, it was determined a detention center did not meet the criteria and therefore did not need state approval. The letter from the ACLU questions that decision and alludes to potential litigation over the matter.
Manchester suggested the sale of the land be postponed in light of the ACLU letter; however, Howieson-Kallas said she had spoken with staff at the attorney general’s office and “there is no indication it will change anything.”
Several residents, including some who spoke in favor of the facility, asked questions regarding infrastructure and whether local water and sewer lines and plants, as well as the landfill, had the capability to meet the expanded needs of a 1,000-bed facility. Commissioner Mark Anderson said he believes local infrastructure is sufficient to handle the increased usage. Evanston resident Dave Black asked if commissioners had the data to back up Anderson’s statement, particularly related to the landfill. Anderson said it’s difficult to assess future patterns of trash generation because of changing recycling markets and said, “I don’t know that there’s facts for the future in anything that we do.”
Heather Hronek raised concerns about revised ICE National Detention Standards released in December and asked if commissioners were aware the new standards no longer required a licensed physician to oversee medical care and no longer prohibited acts like hog tying detainees, among other changes. Concerns about the changes were raised by the ACLU in an article posted online on Jan. 14.
In response, commissioner South said, “Personally, I don’t believe it.” Lucibeth Mayberry, CoreCivic Vice President of Real Estate, said ICE regularly adjusts the detention standards but the issues raised by Hronek didn’t “sound familiar” and said, “If selected, we will honor the highest standards that they expect of us.”
Evanston resident Michael Searle, when addressing his support for the facility, said locals “wouldn’t stand for” hog tying or the other changes mentioned by Hronek and therefore such practices wouldn’t occur in a local facility.
Following public comments, commissioners voted in favor of the resolution. Howieson-Kallas clarified that the resolution gave South the authority to finalize the land sale in the future and said some earnest money had been paid to the county by CoreCivic, although the amount is confidential, as are some other details hammered out between the parties in negotiations.
It is still unknown if ICE will accept any proposal from CoreCivic to operate a facility in Uinta County. The independent environmental assessment was submitted to ICE at the end of November. Ariola said ICE had requested additional information following the submission of the environmental review and CoreCivic must respond to that request by Jan. 28.
If and when the land sale is finalized, CoreCivic will need to request a conditional use permit to operate a detention facility on the property and a public hearing would be held with the Uinta County Planning and Zoning Commission to discuss that permit.