New Jail Stirs Airport Clash
County Commission Supports Site for Jail on Airfield Property; Airport Officials Claim Only Aviation Use Is Allowed
By JOSHUA SABATINI
The Dukes County Commission initiated a feud with the Martha's Vineyard Airport commissioners by voting unanimously Wednesday evening to devote 24.4 acres of land on airport grounds to a county jail and training facility for emergency personnel.
"The county owns the land," said county manager Carol Borer this week. "I am sure there is some strategy being developed to counter or contradict our position [but] our position is that the 24 acres identified are remote enough and inaccessible that it can be used for nonaviation purposes."
The proposed site is located on the northeast quadrant of the airport grounds, set in from Airport Road and bordering the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest.
The proposal would position the jail on 14.7 acres and the training facility, known as the public safety building, on the remainder. All told, the airport grounds comprise 640 acres.
But Martha's Vineyard Airport manager Bill Weibrecht said this week it is not likely the site can be used for a jail.
Mr. Weibrecht explained that the federal government gave the county the land after World War II with the stipulation that all of it would be used for either aviation purposes or to generate revenue for aviation.
While the airport is not likely to use the site for up to 30 years, he said, it will be needed eventually. In the future,airport commissioners will consider a number of options for that site, including additional parking, ramps or hangars.
Mrs. Borer said Wednesday night that the county should meet with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission (MAC) - a body that oversees the development and operations of the state's municipal airports - as well as the Island's U.S. congressman, state senator and representative and the county's airport attorney to obtain a "non-aviation use" designation for the site.
In 1998, Mrs. Borer said, she approached MAC about using some of the airport land for a jail. She said MAC told her it was a good plan and recommended she ask that the concept be incorporated into the airport's master plan discussions.
The request was made, but the county has yet to receive official word from the airport commissioners as to the fate of the site. The airport master plan, a draft of which has been pending for a number of months, has yet to be issued in any form.
Mr. Weibrecht said the only way a jail could be constructed at the site is if it were deemed surplus land by both the FAA and MAC. Then, he said, under the federal government's agreement with the county, the land would have to be sold at commercial market value.
The airport commissioners are required to develop a master plan by the MAC and FAA, which must approve the final document. Among other things, Mr. Weibrecht said, the plan lays out future use of airport land. The old master plan expires in 2004, the deadline for the airport commissioners to issue a new one.
"I think it is time for the [county] commissioners to be more proactive and to take control," said county commission chairman Leslie Leland. "We have been patiently waiting for them to do the airport plans, and have been for years."
"What power do we have as county commissioners to make it final?" asked commissioner E.B. Collins. "We do not have control of that property, I don't think. Do we?"
Leonard Jason Jr., another commissioner, said, "We do have the ability to get it off the dime. We have a statutory obligation to make [the jail] safe."
"Can we override the airport commissioners?" asked county commissioner Roger Wey. Mr. Wey asked to place the land issue on the agenda of every county meeting to keep tabs on the situation, so it will not be put off any longer.
The commissioners' action Wednesday night came at the request of Dukes County sheriff Michael McCormack.
Sheriff McCormack came before the commissioners in July to explain the situation at the county jail in the aftermath of a May 4 jailbreak. He used the moment to bring up once again his claim that the county jail, located on Main street in Edgartown, is in deplorable condition and poses a threat to employees and inmates.
He addressed county commissioners in July and once again Wednesday night regarding the findings of the county-appointed citizens' task force to study the jail. After nine months of work, the committee issued its report to the commissioners in February 2000.
The sheriff reminded the commissioners of unanimous findings that included:
* The existing facility is a dangerous building that is not adequate to meet the basic needs of the inmates or the staff;
* Due to the current state of the existing facility, the size limitations at the existing site and the high costs of upgrades, the proper course of action would be to focus on building a new facility, and
* A county-owned site near the Martha's Vineyard Airport known as the northeast quadrangle should be pursued.
The sheriff requested that this time the commissioners pursue the site actively as well as under a strict timetable.
Many of the Island's police and fire chiefs were present to support Sheriff McCormack's request. One show of support came from Sgt. Robert Moore, the Oak Bluffs station manager for the state police, who wrote a letter to the county.
In his letter, Mr. Moore pointed out that the current jail is poorly designed to allow safe monitoring of inmates; that existing fencing and locks are inadequate; that the video surveillance equipment and lighting are accessible to inmates and constantly tampered with, and that the location in a residential neighborhood has "outlived its effectiveness.
"A new building is not only necessary but is critical to maintain a safe, secure correctional facility," he wrote.
Sergeant Moore showed his support for the proposed public safety building as well, writing, "The ability for multi-agency departments to meet and train together satisfies an ongoing need for this Island."
Sheriff McCormack stressed that it is critical to move ahead with the projects this year in order to secure funding. He said the state has made available to county sheriffs a $30 million bond bill to be used for renovations or rebuilding. Mrs. Borer said there is also money available in the state homeland security fund to develop the public safety building.
"This is critical," said Sheriff McCormack. "The conditions are not getting any better, only worse, and will continue to deteriorate."