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Hillsborough's prison problem

Finding the right spot to build a prison is never easy, but the Hillsborough County Commission seems determined to turn a difficult task into pure agony.

A month ago, the commission seemed giddy at the prospect of a simple solution to a decade-old problem. Rather than deface pristine land along the Little Manatee River, the state Department of Corrections agreed to build a 1,100-bed prison near an existing facility in the southern Hillsborough community of Balm.

But last week the commission did an abrupt about-face, voting 4-2 to consider other sites despite a strong recommendation from its own staff. A nearby property owner had an inordinate influence on that vote. Finn Caspersen, chairman of Beneficial Corp., is part-owner of 1,385 acres of farm land he hopes to develop for housing.

Caspersen is so opposed to the prison he says he'll bankroll a business partner who has an option to buy the land. That was enough for Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who announced he could not support the site even before hearing from County Administrator Fred Karl.

It's important to note that Caspersen was instrumental in turning Turanchik's dream of a downtown arena into a reality. That Turanchik folded so quickly in theface of Caspersen's threat is troubling.

The commission's decision also complicated its own plans to build a spring training facility for the New York Yankees. Besides the prison, the land also could accommodate two other state agencies that would be forced off the spring training site.

Fortunately, the commission changed its mind again. One day after rejecting the Balm site, the commission voted 3-2 to reconsider it. Commissioner Phyllis Busansky said she was bothered by the commission's rush to judgment.

Turanchik says a prison should not be jammed into a neighborhood just to accommodate a baseball team. He's right. If it's a bad spot, the prison shouldn't go there, regardless of the Yankees. Still, the commission should not turn away just because one property owner threatens to block the project.

The entire matter goes back to the commission for further discussion on Wednesday. The county commission should direct Karl to find out if the land is available. If so, it ought to move forward with the project.

If not, another site should be found. Either way, the decision should be based on facts not threats.

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