Lawmakers say Colorado prisons are king


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 says.

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."

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