The 47 families that live along East Alston Road, five miles west of Pittsboro, are about to get a new neighboractually more than 100 neighbors. Many of these families, most of them African-American, live a few hundred feet from the old county landfill, which, as the Indy reported in April, has been bleeding contamination into their drinking water wells. And in two years, they’ll be living near the new Chatham County Jail.

Many neighbors were surprised. “A jail?” exclaimed Willie Alston. “Jesus Christ. Oh my God. I didn’t know anything about it.” Others, like Simon Alston, were resigned to the powers that be. “Whatever the commissioners want to do, the commissioners will do,” he said.

Of all the neighbors, Raymond Alston lived closest to the landfill before the county paid to move his mobile home several hundred feet away from it. He says he is unsettled by the jail’s proximity. “You go past this pole and right up the road and that’s the landfill,” he said, pointing. “That’s my backyard. I can go up and see it all.”

County officials estimate that the $15 million jail, which will be built near the landfill, will be finished by late 2013. The 50,000-square-foot building will house 80 double occupancy cells, with administrative offices, a kitchen and other support services. An additional three acres will be developed for parking and fencing.

The need for a new jail had been on the commissioners’ agenda since March 2007, when the county sheriff’s office reported “operational difficulties” due to high inmate numbers despite longstanding efforts by the sheriff to “keep his population as low as possible.”

Built in 1982, the county’s existing jail is just 10,000 square feet. It is consistently overcrowded: With just 51 beds, the jail was above capacity for two-thirds of last year, including 37 days when the number of inmates exceeded 60. (The average number of inmates on any given day in 2010 was 53.) Extra inmates often slept on mattresses laid on the floors of single-occupancy cells.

The jail is grandfathered to 1982 standards, said Capt. Mike Roberson of the county sheriff’s office, meaning that the jail is exempt from many new regulations. However, the antiquated building causes logistical and practical problems. For example, because the cell doors are only 22 inches wide, a medical stretcher can’t fit to reach sick or injured inmates.

County officials finally began soliciting bids from architects last October. After a round of interviews, the contract was awarded to Jack Hemphill of Hemphill-Randell Associates in Charlotte. The county gave Hemphill three sites to consider: a jail connected to the new justice center being built in downtown Pittsboro, the site near the old county landfill and an undisclosed site within the town limits. Earlier this month, Hemphill presented his recommendation to commissioners to build the jail in the Alston neighborhood.

Commissioners and the county manager preferred that the jail adjoin the justice center, minimizing transportation costs and maximizing security. However, Hemphill’s study found that the only available plot of land near the justice center is narrow and sloping. Leveling the parcel would have required a 25-foot-high, 400-foot-long retaining wall, which would have added $500,000 to the cost.

The commissioners voted 4-1 for the landfill site because of its comparatively low cost, large size, ease of compliance with county ordinances and regulations, and the fact that the county already owned the land. Board of Commissioners Chair Brian Bock said that, “when you took the pluses and minuses of each, the old landfill was the most appropriate.”

Commissioner Sally Kost was the lone dissenting vote. She cited transportation costs to and from the justice center, which could cost the county up to $200,000 a year. She also said opposing the landfill site was “a social justice issue,” since the nearby neighborhood, which is predominantly African-American, had already suffered the effects of living near the landfill. “I don’t like being the only one voting against it,” she said, “but in the long run, it could’ve been done [another way].”

Hemphill, whose company has built 29 jails in North Carolina, says the facility will be designed to have no impact on the neighborhood. “When we say ‘jail,’ people picture ‘prison’ in their mind. It’s not a prison, with a guardtower and searchlights,” Hemphill says.

The jail will “look like an office building,” and will be surrounded by trees to seclude the facility from view. There would not be 24-hour lighting or night traffic. Because the new facility’s improved design supports modern safety protocols, the security risks are lower than that of the current jail in downtown Pittsboro, say Hemphill and Roberson.

Ann Smith, a 47-year-old mother of two and a neighborhood resident, remains concerned about safety. “It’s not safe, not to me,” she says. “Not when I have kids around.” The western edge of the woods is visible from Smith’s mobile home. It is a 10-to-15 minute walk to the jail site. “There are houses here. I think houses would be the first place [escaped prisoners] would hide,” she said.

Barbara Hebrank and her husband, both retired, live with their married daughter and grandchildren half a mile from the jail site. “If it was a lake it would be better,” laughed Hebrank, who says she’s concerned about the safety of her young grandchildren. “If it was just the two of us I wouldn’t worry.”

But Hebrank acknowledged the rationale behind a new jail, saying, “It’s got to be somewhere. Better out in the county than in the city, I guess.”