The D.C. Zoning Commission rejected a plan yesterday that would have paved the way for a private prison to be constructed on 42 acres in far Southwest Washington.
The commission voted against zoning the land known as Oxon Cove to allow Corrections Corp. of America to build a facility for District inmates, ending one of the city's most hotly debated and emotional issues, which sharply divided politicians and residents. The parkland is currently unzoned.
"I am pleased that the . . . zoning commission voted to deny the application by CCA," Mayor Anthony A. Williams said in a statement. "I believe that supermarkets, small businesses and schools are the answer. Our citizens deserve no less."
Nashville-based CCA requested a zoning change last year, in anticipation of landing a multimillion-dollar federal government contract to house 1,200 District inmates. The contract has not been awarded.
"I was disappointed, more so in the city council and the mayor, who all chose to stand back from the issue because it was such a hot potato," said Ward 8 resident Joyce Scott, who favored a prison in her neighborhood to keep District inmates close to home.
D.C. Council member Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8), who is recovering from a ruptured disc and did not attend yesterday's hearing, praised the commission for "listening to the concerns of the residents."
"I still feel there should be a corrections facility in the District," Allen said. "Now we need to get together and see where it should be located."
The 42-acre parcel was a District landfill before the National Park Service took it over 25 years ago. The property overlooks Interstate 295 near the Prince George's County line.
A 1997 congressional mandate requires that the Park Service swap the land for 84 acres owned by CCA, provided the company completes the necessary environmental contamination testing, surveys and appraisals.
Zoning Commission members refused to zone the property because of its proximity to the Anacostia waterfront and because it is recreational open space.
"This was really an emotional moment," said Anna El-Eini, coordinator for the D.C. Environmental Network, which includes Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club. "We really felt that we were heard."
CCA board member Joseph Johnson said the issue of the land being close to the waterfront was not raised by commissioners at any of the five public hearings.
Johnson said he is awaiting the commission's report before deciding "what our options might be." The commission is required to issue a report of finding to establish the legal basis for the rejection, he said.
CCA officials are eager to meet with Williams to discuss other possible sites for a District prison. Maryland law prohibits private prisons, he said. Virginia does not allow private prisons housing out-of-state inmates.
The decision to build a private prison was prompted by the D.C. revitalization plan to help the city become financially solvent. The plan calls for the closure of the Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County by Dec. 31, 2001, and the transfer of those inmates to federal prisons or private correctional facilities. The plan was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1997.
At least 2,000 of the District's sentenced felons must be moved to a privately run prison by the end of the year. The prison must be built within 300 miles of the Capitol.
Another private prison company, Houston-based Cornell Corrections Inc., was awarded a contract in April to construct a 1,000-bed facility for women and youths. That prison was expected to be built in Moshannon Valley, Pa., 25 miles northwest of State College, Pa.
But a recently filed lawsuit has threatened that project, and federal officials have stopped construction. The Citizen's Advisory Committee on Private Prisons in Osceola Mills, Pa., sued the federal Bureau of Prisons, claiming that the agency failed to conduct the necessary environmental studies before beginning construction.
The bureau issued a stop-work order on the project for at least 45 days until the agency "reevaluates the environmental documentation," according to bureau spokesman Dan Dunn.
David Cornell, president and chief executive officer of Cornell Corrections Inc., called the stop order unfortunate and said it will delay the completion of the prison from December to sometime next year.
CAPTION: A private prison was proposed for the Park Service site known as Oxon Cove.