Much has been made of Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall's failure to brief residents and local politicians about his plan to build an $80 million jail on a county-owned parcel off New Ordnance Road. His critics have a point. Anything as controversial as a new jail deserves tender loving care. But the key questions are whether the county needs a new jail, and if it does, is this the best place to put it?
There's little dispute as to need. The county's existing Annapolis lockup is perpetually overburdened. Even a planned expansion that would take capacity from 559 to 750 beds would be exhausted by 1997. By the year 2000, the county's needs are expected to swell to 1,170 beds.
Is the New Ordnance Road location the best available site? Opponents -- mostly people who live in the vicinity -- argue that a jail would lower property values and pose a safety threat. Business development would come to a screeching halt. The money would be better spent on schools or the homeless. There's concern whether chemicals buried underground at the old Army Depot nearby have tainted ground water.
The first argument fails by comparison. Baltimore County's detention center is smack in the heart of Towson near government offices, two shopping malls and a thriving retail corridor. Ditto the existing Anne Arundel facility a quarter-mile away from an expanding Annapolis Mall and Harborgates, a major townhouse development.
The tainted ground-water argument doesn't hold up, either. Government records give the nearby area a clean bill of health. As for spending the money on schools or the homeless, the same argument could be made for any local government expenditure. Is public safety any less important than education? Besides, we wonder just how eagerly area residents would welcome a homeless shelter.
Jails, for obvious reasons, are unpopular neighbors. But they are necessary and have to go somewhere. Financially, this site makes sense because the county already owns the land. As for nearby population, the New Ordnance Road corridor houses mostly industrial and commercial buildings with only 35 homes in a half-mile radius.
No one can blame North County residents for being less than happy at the prospect of a 650-bed jail in their midst. Nonetheless, Arundel needs a new jail and this seems the least harmful place to put it. Council members can take comfort in the fact that proposing a jail virtually anywhere will bring cries of protest -- whether it is approved this year or later.