FERNDALE - City leaders couldn't stop a jail from coming into town, even if they wanted to. But they can write the city's code to make a jail as innocuous as possible.
That's the motivation behind a meeting of the city's Planning Commission later this month.
"We'll be asking the question to the Planning Commission ... if the code as written is intended to protect the community," said Jori Burnett, Ferndale's community development director.
Whatcom County has been considering construction of a new jail for more than a decade, and county officials finally announced in December a favored location - in south Ferndale, northwest of the intersection of Sunset Avenue and LaBounty Drive.
"This is the only site that we're currently looking at," Sheriff Bill Elfo said.
The county is having the 40-acre property appraised, and a consulting firm is assessing whether the land will work "for the type of facility we're looking into," Elfo said.
The sheriff said the new county jail would be loosely modeled on the South Correctional Entity Jail, shared by seven cities in south King County and completed in 2011.
"There will be no fence with inmates out in the yard lifting weights," Elfo said. "It will look like an office building and be pretty innocuous in appearance."
The county wants to address any environmental issues and neighbors' concerns before taking the first steps toward construction, the sheriff said.
Elected officials in Ferndale are aware of the impacts a jail could have in its neighborhood. They also realize their hands are tied.
"It's an essential public facility, so cities don't get to say, 'We don't like it, and we don't want it,'" Mayor Gary Jensen said.
The mayor's concerns include how the jail would fit into its neighborhood, and how traffic would flow on the narrow streets in that part of town.
Council member Jon Mutchler said he would welcome a jail in the city.
"It would be hypocritical and inappropriate of us to say 'not in our backyard' when we're zoned for it," he said.
The jail could start a business boom in that part of town, if restaurants and coffee shops catering to jail staff locate nearby, Mutchler said.
There's a particular concern Elfo was able to address immediately: Inmates would not be released from the jail into the neighborhood.
"That absolutely will not be done," he said. "We'd release them at the court."
Other issues will be considered by the Planning Commission, then the City Council. Burnett said now is the time to give the city code a fresh look, before the jail site selection is official.
"So if an application is submitted, we're ready," he said.
The Planning Commission meeting takes place at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 13, at Community Resource Center, 5694 Second Ave.