Dozens of Skippack Township residents presented their questions and concerns during a courtesy meeting at the township building last Thursday evening to discuss the current plans for new construction on property.
Many attendees were from the properties that border the prison, and brought up worries about safety, noise and property values due to the housing units and athletic fields moving closer to their homes.
Department of General Services’ Deputy Secretary of Public Works Elizabeth O’Reilly, Mark Dickinson, senior project manager at Hill International—the project’s construction manager—and Craig Bryson of Pennoni Associates Inc.-Consulting Engineers, were on hand to discuss the project, as were Department of Corrections personnel including SCI Graterford Superintendent Mike Wenerowicz.
According to a quick overview by Dickinson, the proposed new prison, called SCI Phoenix East and West, includes a fence instead of a wall, a low security women’s transition unit and a capital case unit, in addition to a men’s maximum security facility similar to what is already in place.
The perimeter security is a 14-foot high fence with razor ribbon and has taut wire shakers that set off alarms, Dickinson said. Other fence features include “microwave protection vibration monitoring” and additional razor wire with another 14-foot fence, according to the presentation. The perimeter is also monitored by patrols, which occur at different times to avoid prisoners’ discovering a pattern.
Wenerowicz said there hasn’t been an escape in years, but notification systems are in place to alert the community.
Dickinson said the planned construction of total beds is 3,562. A press release (see PDF) states the complex could house up to 4,100 inmates.
Numerous utilities changes would come with the new prison, Dickinson said, North Penn Water Authority will come in to service the prison, and will potentially tap into the public sewer, possibly using a co-gen plant for power as to not disturb the surrounding properties.
Dickinson said the prison’s neighbors’ view will be shielded by berms that will have wild grass and fully grown trees.
While the berms will not provide a “cone of silence,” it is hoped that the trees will blunt the noise and light pollution.
Route 73 will also be improved with acceleration and deceleration lanes east and west, a signalized intersection, drainage improvements, and telephone and utility poles to the eastern portion of road, Dickinson said.
One of the bigger concerns from attendees was the closer proximity of the new structures to neighboring homes and businesses. At the meeting, it was noted that the prison fences are “just a hair short” of 700 feet to Cressman Road property lines.
“The value of my house is going to go way down,” one man said. “So is everybody’s (other homeowners) on Cressman Road.”
O’Reilly said, “Some portion of your property has been assessed as (abutting) a prison.” However, the presenters acknowledged that no one has looked into the construction’s impact on surrounding homes’ resale values.
When asked why the prison couldn’t set back farther from surrounding properties, O’Reilly said other sites and portions of the prison property had “(protected) wetlands, archeological issues and grade (contour) issues” that ruled out those spots as options.
“The totality of the circumstances make it the proper site,” O’Reilly said.
Skippack Township Manager Ted Locker Jr. drew some applause when he spoke on behalf of the residents who aired their concerns at Wednesday night’s Board of Supervisors meeting.
“The feeling is they’d like to see the bridge to Graterford revitalized and prisoners pushed away from Route 73 and Cressman Road,” he said in summary.
Other people echoed the concern of using Route 73/Skippack Pike as the main thoroughfare for prison traffic. O’Reilly said PennDOT, not DGS, would have to address the bridge reconstruction.
Half of the prison traffic is expected to use Route 29, and staffers’ cars are not expected to worsen rush hour traffic because guards’ shifts occur at off-peak times.
The consensus from the meetings’ attendees was the driveway on Route 73 would be good for emergency and deliveries, but keep visitors (including those coming on buses) and staff on Route 29.
“We’ll take a look at that,” the presenters responded.
Another concern was what some people characterized as a lack of communication and publicity about the meeting and the prison construction.
O’Reilly responded that the construction has been discussed for three years, and noted that Thursday’s meeting was not a “public meeting” but a “courtesy meeting.”
Perkiomen Valley Patch learned about this meeting after seeing a handmade sign at the Skippack Wawa. The Skippack Township website also listed an announcement.
One woman said, “What upsets me is no one has spoken to homeowners, knocked on doors, (or sent) letters to residents close to properties. I will be impacted by lights and noise. I can hear noise now. What am I going to do?”
O’Reilly said she could come back to the township, and that plans will be accessible on the DGS website.
O’Reilly said bids are due Aug. 30, and will be awarded shortly thereafter. There will be “minimal” project activity until springtime she said, and once the project begins, it will take about 40 months until completion.
“Thousands” of construction jobs should be created with this project, O’Reilly said. However, responding to a resident’s question, it is not mandated that the work go to local individuals or companies.
The Graterford prison will be “mothballed,” O’Reilly said, adding that it would cost too much to demolish the 80-year-old structure when a resident asked why the current facility couldn’t be torn down and the present site put to other uses.