With some heavy lobbying from Governor Roy Romer, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill allowing the state Corrections Department to ignore local zoning when it wants to build or expand a prison.
The legislation responds to contentious
expansion plans for prisons in the rural West Slope communities of
Delta and Rifle. Just days before the amendment was introduced,
some residents in Rifle convinced a judge to put a temporary
restraining order on plans to expand the Rifle prison, now known to
have been built illegally in a state wildlife area (HCN 6/26/95).
They brought the lawsuit because prison officials refused to submit
their plans to the county.
"If the (Department
of Corrections) wants to put a prison next to your kid's school,
they can just do it, and you can't say anything about it," says
Gary Beech, an attorney representing prison opponents in Rifle.
The bill's sponsors, who represent the state's
urban Front Range, say prisons shouldn't have to undergo local
scrutiny because they are of statewide interest. That argument
swayed Sam Mamet, a lobbyist for the Colorado Municipal League. He
says the courts have made it unclear whether local governments can
even apply local zoning regulations to state agencies. After
opposing an early version of the bill, Mamet's group, which
represents 258 towns and cities in the state, later agreed to
compromise language allowing local governments to conduct an
"advisory review" of prison plans. "My experience generally is that
DOC tries to be a good neighbor," he
Anti-prison activists don't share that
sentiment. Businessman Tom Huerkamp, who is fighting an expansion
proposed for the state's largest minimum-security prison in Delta,
says he believes prison officials needed the bill because local
sentiment had turned against them. "Nobody wants them," he says.
"They're like the bully in the school yard."