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Sylva police packed in like sardines

Just stepping inside the Sylva Police Department gives a person an immediate understanding of why Chief Davis Woodard is pushing so hard for a new building.

The department’s 14 officers, with one more being hired soon, and its three auxiliary officers share 1,000 square feet of room in the 1927-completed building, located on Allen Street. The building was originally designed and built for the town’s fire department; the police department started using it in 1990.

To describe the Sylva Police Department as rather crowded is akin to describing Sylva’s newly renovated historic courthouse and library complex as merely pretty. The words fall short of the reality.

The town’s police officers are crammed into the equivalent of five to seven standard parking spaces.

A few highlights include:

The women’s bathroom at the police department was recently sacrificed to create a tiny break room; all officers now share what had been the men’s bathroom.

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Evidence is stored in three different areas; only one of which is actually in the police department. One of the evidence rooms, down in the basement of the building, sometimes floods when bordering Scotts Creek jumps its banks.

There is little to no room left, anywhere, for storing any additional items critical to any successful police investigation. This means when the State Bureau of Investigation finishes up lab work on evidence from a recent double homicide in Sylva, Woodard needs the town’s maintenance crew to construct some kind of special holding place to hold the dozens of items that will be sent to Sylva in anticipation of a trial. Who knows what the officers will do if another big case takes place anytime soon within the town’s limits.

A weight room or workout area, common to most police departments in the region in hopes officers will keep in shape, is simply out of the question. A Bowflex machine is gathering dust in storage at the back of town hall.

Full-sized personal lockers for the officers are also impossible given the space limitations — Woodard jokes about the “preschool”-sized ones in use now, quipping that he’d like his officers to have big-boy and big-girl lockers instead.

The first door to the left in the Sylva police department opens into a 20-x-18 square foot room used by the assistant police chief, four patrol supervisors and seven road officers. Lt. George Lamphiear said the scene is particularly chaotic during shift changes, with everyone jockeying for a place to work. Or in the middle of a huge case such as the double homicide, when the building had to host an additional four or five SBI agents, the district attorney and three or four of his assistants.

“We came into work (that day), and turned right around and went back out,” Lamphiear said. There was no room left for patrol officers and their supervisors to work in the building.

The department also has a small office for the police chief, a slightly larger office for the department’s two detectives, and a tiny reception area at the front. A couple of storage closets, and that’s it.

No interview room, no conference room and inadequate parking in the back, to boot.

If the Sylva Police Department does acquire the old library, Woodard and his officers will have, in place of 1,000 square feet, an airy 6,400 square feet at their disposal, plus 19 parking spaces.

Sounds like heaven on earth to Woodard and his officers.


The situation

Sylva’s council members have asked Jackson County to give the them the old library building on Main Street, now standing vacant, to use as a police department. County commissioners agreed last week to meet with their town counterparts on July 18 to discuss it. Sylva is offering, in return for the old library building, to give Jackson County the old chamber of commerce building it owns, a small building on Grindstaff Cove on the approach to downtown.

The sticking point, if there is one, might involve the disparate tax values of the two buildings involved. Sylva’s building is valued at $157,560; the county’s building is $796,000.

Town leaders, however, have described the swap as an issue of fairness, noting that in past years they have allowed the county to use town-owned buildings, such as the senior center, for no charge to taxpayers, or at nominal lease amounts such as $1 a year.

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