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March 05. 2012 11:06PM

Public can weigh in on plan to restrict private prisons in Manchester

MANCHESTER — During a hearing at City Hall tonight, the public will have a chance to voice their opinions about where privately funded prisons and halfway houses should be located.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen will hold a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. in the Aldermanic Chambers. The hearing will open with a presentation from Director of Planning and Community Development Leon LaFreniere, who will explain the details of the proposal. Then people in favor of the plan and those against will be allowed to speak.

The aldermen are considering an ordinance that would restrict privately owned prisons to a small industrial section of the city near the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. Under the proposed ordinance, a prison must be on a lot of 5 acres or more. It must also be 1,500 feet from a church, school, park, licensed day-care facility, child recreation facility such as a YMCA or residential zones. The ordinance would require an expert review of prison standards such as fencing, lighting, barriers and cameras. An emergency management plan would have to be approved by city police and fire chiefs.

At present, the city has no real control over where privately owned or operated prisons can operate in the city, after the New Hampshire Supreme Court shot down the city's ordinance covering private prisons. The proposed ordinance aims to fix that.

The zoning change also puts restrictions on private halfway houses. The only options would be about a block on Elm and Willow streets and land along the Merrimack River.

Ward 8 Alderman Tom Katsiantonis said he is against locating a prison in his ward and has been the most outspoken alderman about the plan.

If passed, the ordinance could impede efforts to build a private prison in the Northwest Business Park off Hackett Hill Road, but it wouldn't necessarily kill the plan.

City officials have said that the ordinance could be overridden. State and federal governments do not have to follow city zoning laws, and even organizations contracting with state and federal government can be exempt from local ordinances.

After the hearing, the zoning proposal must then be vetted by two committees before heading to the full Board of Aldermen for final review. This process could take more than a month.

Details about the zoning changes are available at the City Clerk's Office or on the manchester.nh.gov website, by clicking “meeting agendas,” and then the Board of Mayor and Aldermen listing.

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