After prolonged debates about project scope and costs, a key contractor quitting mid-project, rising costs, a closed highway, a pandemic and one rescued kitten, Santa Barbara County’s long-awaited Northern Branch Jail has been completed.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned for 10 a.m. Thursday at the facility’s home, 2301 Black Road, near the intersection with Betteravia Road.
The first inmates could move in early next year.
“I’m elated,” General Services Director Janette Pell said. “It’s a beautiful facility. It will serve the sheriff well.”
Chief Joe Mariani of the Lompoc Police Department is among law enforcement leaders looking forward to the Northern Branch Jail’s opening, noting that the Lompoc City Jail can only hold inmates for 96 hours.
Recently, Lompoc’s jail has housed some arrestees for North County agencies including Guadalupe, Santa Maria, the California Highway Patrol and others.
“That’s going to change come mid-November, when the North County Jail that we have long-awaited will be open. It will be just a short 24 miles away as opposed to driving 54 miles one-way when we book our arrestees, so that’s good news,” Mariani told his City Council earlier this month.
To ready for the opening, some first responders including Santa Maria firefighters have recently toured the new jail to become familiar with the facility’s features.
The jail has 376 inmate beds, including 80 in a women’s wing, plus a mental health and medical wing.
Originally priced at $111 million, county staff recently put the project cost at $119.5 million.
Sheriff Bill Brown and other county leaders gathered in October 2016 for a groundbreaking ceremony at the site, estimating that most of the construction would be done by September 2018, with inmates moving in by early 2019..
Delays have included the usual challenges facing a large construction project, including rain and change orders or last minute tweaks on a project.
But other delays and challenges, both on and off site, have been more unique. Those included the Highway 101 closure due to the Montecito debris flow in 2018 and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic.
The project also saw the abrupt departure of the architectural and engineering design firm, Rosser International Inc., before the end of the contract, leading to a lawsuit.
That caused minimal interruptions in architectural services, but did add costs, county staff said last year.
An earthwork subcontractor refused to execute its contract, so the county had to find another one, and the new contractor, SJ Amoroso Construction Company Inc. (SJA), “struggled a bit with the coordination of the work,” county staff said.
The project saw some changes related to design that occurred to comply with regulatory agency demands such such as adding smoke dampers throughout the building, and altering inmate shower doors “to reduce ligature risk.”
In March 2020, a General Services Department staff member said the project was 98% complete.
However, officials did not declare construction done until September.
Meanwhile, at least one kitten owes its life to the construction project.
In 2017, workers rescued the kitten from the site, and nicknamed “Chapo” after the Mexican drug lord.
After his capture Chapo — the cat — has been neutered, gained weight and became the boss of his adopter — a Sheriff’s Office employee. The animal also received a new name to match its new life.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.