The battle for Haven House, a transitional home for released female prisoners, may be coming to a close. City and Borough of Juneau Assembly members poured over binders with almost 2,000 pages of testimony during an appeal from the Tall Timbers Neighborhood Association on Monday night.
The appeal questioned the October 2014 Planning Commission decision to grant a conditional use permit for Haven House.
Assembly members retreated into executive session around 9 p.m. and decided not to make a final decision during the Assembly Committee of the Whole meeting. Instead, they will notify both parties once a decision has been made sometime during the next month.
Tall Timbers attorney Daniel Bruce has maintained that Haven House should fall under the designation of a “halfway house,” which is not allowed in residential zones, according to city code.
“This case has become unduly complex when it is really quite simple,” Bruce said.
He referenced grade school multiple-choice exams, in which the first chosen answer is usually correct. Bruce said the original decision to define Haven House as a halfway house by the Community Development Department was correct and the Planning Commission only approved the conditional use permit because “it was likely unenforceable.”
“That’s like when a police officer makes a decision in the field and decides a statute is unenforceable and therefore doesn’t enforce the law,” he said.
Haven House attorney Mary Alice McKeen has repeatedly said the nine women could technically live together of their own volition in the home as a single family unit; the number of family members able to live under one roof is not specified.
“Women at Haven House deserve to live among us, that was the decision of the Planning Commission,” she said. “Women on probation can live anywhere with the permission of their probation officer. They could live in this house.”
McKeen compared Haven House’s use to a frat house or a convent and noted that regular families often include multiple children with two parents to supervise. Haven House would include up to nine women with two house managers for supervision, and would not offer medical or correctional services.
She added that the house’s previous occupants on Malissa Drive had about 10 children in addition to the two parents.
Meetings, counseling sessions and probation visits will take place in separate locations. Drugs, alcohol and weapons will also be prohibited on the property and McKeen said there would be a zero-tolerance policy on substance abuse.
Planning Commission attorney Robert Palmer also said the case is very straightforward because the Planning Commission determined the home to be a transitional living facility, which is not defined under Title 49.
Assemblywoman Kate Troll asked if a group home or boarding house was required to be for-profit.
Palmer responded that the city code did not specifically require transitional homes to be commercial in nature.
Palmer said the Tall Timbers argument was a “fallacy” because the Planning Commission decided Haven House did not meet the definition of a halfway house and its decisions “are given considerable deference.”
Palmer recommended the Assembly amend the allowable uses for conditional use permits to include transitional homes or clarify the definition of a halfway house for similar cases in the future.
The house, located in a D-5 residential zone and in within walking distance of Glacier Valley Elementary School, can accept up to nine women under the conditions of their permit. Neighbors have contested the home’s permit partially because of the proximity to the school and other young children.
Bruce also noted that long-time residents who all know and “look out for one another” occupy the neighborhood. He said by Haven House’s definition as a transitional home, they would be introducing “transients” into the neighborhood.
“It is in effect, a social experiment and the people in the neighborhood are being asked to participate in that experiment,” he said.
Occupants may stay in the home for as little as a month or as long as two years. Co-director Kara Nelson said she expects to have at least three residents in the coming weeks.
Haven House took in its first resident March 17 after a year of battling with Mendenhall Valley neighbors over its right to exist there. Assembly members will notify parties of their decision within the next month.
• Contact reporter Stephanie Shor at 523-2279 or at email@example.com.