No One Looks Good in Prison Deal

September, 2023

Lincoln —  Seldom is a public policy deal struck that does not have winners somewhere along the way, but the recent state prison siting agreement on 300 acres north of Lincoln seems to be one.  No one is looking good; fingers are pointing; conspiracies abound.  

The cause of transparency in government was dealt a blow from both the state and the city.  Citizens had no warnings about what was going on.  Suddenly the state announced a new prison was to be built at North 112th and Adams Streets in northeast Lincoln, and that it had already paid landowners $17 million for 305 acres, or about $56,000 per acre.  When nearby residents revolted, the site was switched to another location north of I-80 that was already owned by the city, but which the city had previously said was not available.  The city gave it up and got the Adams street property in exchange, but with strings that it would pay for improvements at the new alternative  site.  The fait accompli was announced at a press conference.  

The rule of law may also have been dealt a blow.  There are statutory procedures that are supposed to govern such transactions.  If the state was acting under its eminent domain authority, there should have been public notice and an independent appraisal of the property.  

The cause of affordable housing lost out, too.  Imagine what landowners will think their agriculture-zoned property is worth if the state itself is paying $56,000 per acre.  Will taxpayers now have to subsidize developers even more to increase Lincoln's affordable housing stock? 

Neighborhood comity evaporated quickly, when north Lincoln residents complained that this would never have happened to south Lincoln.  And those near the final site asked why they had no voice at all in the matter. 

Ethnic and racial divides widened as Native Americans watched how quickly the city acted to move the prison away from a location next to a largely white, middle-class neighborhood, compared to their own constantly thwarted attempt — even through the city's board of zoning appeals — to protect an indigenous peoples' spiritual site in an environmentally fragile area near Wilderness Park.

Conservationists watched to see if anyone was aware how the prison site at 112th would degrade Prairie Pines, an important prairie and woodland natural habitat next door.   It was seldom mentioned.  

Penal reform advocates, who wanted to reduce prison populations as a part of prison construction considerations, lost a chance to make their arguments.  

Political analysts of all stripes, especially those with an eye for real or imagined conspiracies, widened already yawning gaps with declarations of who got the better of whom in the deal.  Some said the state cleverly planned it all beforehand to force the city's hand on the property the state wanted in the first place.  Others said the city got the better deal because it would up with a property to sell off, probably at a profit of millions at the needless expense of state taxpayers.

Was there a way to avoid all of this?  Questions remain as to why the city, or at least the city's state legislative delegation, did not press the state to explain the authority under which it was acting, and if the authority was eminent domain, to follow public transparency and appraisal requirements. 

Is there a way to move forward to remediate some of the damage done?  Yes.  The situation calls for a review by an outside, independent third party, perhaps a reputable good government organization outside Nebraska, to determine how public transparency was avoided, at what cost.  

The city could recover considerable credibility if it were quickly to commit to an open and transparent process to evaluate options on its newly acquired Adams Street property.  The city's own comprehensive plan calls for a buffer around natural resources like Prairie Pines; so does its climate action plan.  Its new local food plan might be a good fit with some of the property.  Sales of portions of the property could be used to fund conservation easements to protect other natural resources, including remaining parcels near the controversial development near Wilderness Park.  Prompt and proper appraisal of the Adams Street property would put a damper on wild land speculation around Lincoln that hurts the cause of affordable housing.  

Most of all, state and local governments must let citizens have a say.