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Proposed Bellows Falls Criminal Justice Center Stirs Controversy

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark wants to develop the former Liberty Mill in Bellows Falls

Members of the Rockingham Selectboard want more details on a proposed $23 million criminal justice center.Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark wants to build the new facility in a former paper mill in Bellows Falls.

The Liberty Mill Justice Center would house federal and state detainees awaiting trial and offer social services to offenders. It would also be the new home of the Windham County Sheriff's office.

At a Rockingham Selectboard meeting Tuesday, board member Ann DiBernardo said the board has been blindsided by the controversial project.

"I am not taking a stance on it," DiBernardo said. "I am upset with the process. Four out of five members of the selectboard have no clue what was going on."

The proposed justice center would be owned by a private entity, according to a website set up by the sheriff, and his office would lease the building.

Clark argues that the center would save the state money, by housing the detainees who are now spending time in more expensive prison cells.

And he says the project would cut down on the overworked probation officer caseloads.

At Tuesday night's meeting, members of the selectboard and the public grilled Development Director Francis "Dutch" Walsh and Town Manager Chip Stearns over the town's official position on the project.

"I am not taking a stance on it. I am upset with the process. Four out of five members of the Selectboard have no clue what was going on." - Ann DiBernardo, Rockingham Selectboard member

Walsh is also the executive director of the Bellows Falls Area Development Corporation, an independent, nonprofit development organization.

In a November letter to the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services, Walsh called the project a "tremendous asset to this community."

The town also sent a letter to the Windham Regional Commission in support of environmental testing, but DiBernardo said the board was never included in discussions over the work.

Clark held two public meetings on the proposed detention center, but the project has raised widespread concern from residents.

Former Bellows Falls Trustee Charlie Hunter said people want to know if the town is working with Clark.

"It is unwise to hunker down and hope the anger will just go away," Hunter said. "It won't. The Selectboard should arrange a public forum explaining why town hall thinks the proposal is in the long term interests of the citizens of Rockingham."

Walsh argued that the project was a private enterprise and that he had a responsibility to protect confidentiality agreements and allow the developer to present details as he saw fit.

A petition was presented to the selectboard asking for a nonbinding vote on the project.

Clark is expecting to get a structural analysis of the building this month and he is also waiting to hear about a $250,000 USDA grant.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state. 
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