When the issue of putting up a fence around the women's prison in Shakopee was heating up a couple of years ago, Dennis Hron rigged up a model to show what it would do to the neighbors around it.

"It would be 9 a.m. before the sun would rise on one side of the street," he said last week. "And on the other side, the sun would set by 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon."

It's just one reason why he and others are worried that a proposal they've managed to beat back before, may be returning in 2008: the addition of a 10- to 12-foot fence to a correctional facility that has long been treated as a campus.

While robustly defending the need for such a fence, the Minnesota Department of Corrections isn't commenting yet on whether it will push for one next year.

"Our bonding request is not fully developed," said spokeswoman Shari Burt, "so we can't give you a definitive answer at this time."

But Mayor John Schmitt and other city officials say the issue is coming back.

"It is my understanding that senators responsible for bonding were taken by the site the other day and were told about it," said Mark McNeill, the city administrator. "I haven't seen anything formal in terms of proposals."

If state officials pursue the fence, said Hron, a former Scott County commissioner who lives across the street from the prison, they could be in for a court battle alleging broken promises, much like the one that neighbors of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport lodged when promises of soundproofing were withdrawn.

"Appraisers and Realtors are indicating that a fence could cause a 10 to 15 percent drop in property values," Hron said. "That would be bad enough normally, but today it's on top of a drop in values that we don't need to compound. We're going to pursue other avenues first, but a class action suit is something we'd explore for sure."

Neighbors say the city has always been promised a campus-like feel, not a fortress, and Schmitt agrees.

"I think part of our approach would be to go back and hold the Department of Corrections to their word, that there would be no fence," he said. "If they're changing that, then what would the city get out of it?"

Burt defends the idea of a fence on three grounds:

• Public safety: Harm caused by an escapee, either encountering people outside or fleeing in a vehicle waiting outside.

• Staff or inmate safety, in the form of an intruder coming in. "Many of the female inmates have had domestic violence issues and restraining orders against their abusers," she said.

• Introduction of contraband, such as drugs or weapons, onto the grounds.

Two years ago, when the issue last warmed up, corrections officials warned that there are plenty of women in the prison for violent offenses and that seven inmates have walked away from the facility over the years. Since then, Burt said, no one has left, and officials know of no "serious incident" caused by walkaways in recent years.

Hron added, wryly: "One walkaway did end up in the living room of a house, but to their dismay it was owned by a policeman. That was many years ago. I remember another one who went to a concert and then came back on her own!"

The character of the women's prison has long been an issue. In 1986, as a replacement prison near the original one was about to open, the Star Tribune reported that it was being criticized as more of "a country club than a slammer," with attractive grounds, a spacious gym, a game room with pinball and video games, and no fence.

In addition to the issue of a fence, Schmitt said, is the more basic one of what the state plans for the future as inmate numbers rise. A facility surrounded by homes, by an elementary school, by a swimming pool, is no place, he said, for an institution that might have to be twice the size of the existing one in the decades to come.

"We have to start recognizing that we have to create another prison some place other than Shakopee," he said, preferably one with more room for expansion than the existing site. "Let's get out our crystal ball and get to work on that."

David Peterson • 612-673-4440