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May 19, 2010

City Council Backs Off Challenge to Phoenix House Permit

Zcard Update: The original vote total provided for the council's Monday night was incorrect. The post has been updated with the correct vote total.

Update x 2: The vote total provided by the city clerk's office correcting the original post was, in fact, incorrect. After reviewing the video of the vote, the corrected tally is below, along with the names of the councilors voting in opposition.

After a closed-door session with city officials, the Burlington City Council late Monday night backed off its challenge of an Act 250 permit granted to a 20-bed transitional house for ex-inmates.

The council authorized the city attorney's office to enter in a settlement with Burlington Housing Authority and Phoenix House. Conditions of the settlement will set, in concrete terms, who can be admitted to the home and how they will be overseen while living in the home.

The issue usurped plenty of public oxygen at the past two council meetings with a number of Church Street business owners and downtown business leaders concerned that a home so close to the Marketplace would send people to the street to simply hang out and loiter all day, scaring away customers.

A number of Phoenix House advocates said without the transitional home on Elmwood Avenue, ex-inmates would be returned to Burlington — likely the Old North End — live without supervision or support. And, it's likely they'd end up on Church Street anyway. 

Advocates also noted that when Northern Lights — a transitional house for women offenders — was first proposed several years ago on Cherry Street, it raised similar fears from downtown merchants.

The home has proven successful for the women who live there, and the fears regarding its negative impact on downtown have not been borne out, said Leigh Steele, of Vermont Works for Women.

"It hasn't been a problem at all," said Steele, noting that more transitional housing is needed. At least a dozen women are incarcerated on any given day because they have no place to live upon release.

Housing advocates also warned that fighting the Act 250 permit would ensnare the city in a messy, expensive federal Fair Housing Act lawsuit — one it was sure to lose since recovering addicts are considered a "protected class" by federal housing laws.

Rachel Batterson, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, told the council Monday night that its initial action to oppose the Act 250 permit could jeopardize as much as $2 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funds because some of the money is tied to the city promoting and encouraging fair housing.

A mix of public pressure, and assurance from Phoenix House that it would abide by certain guidelines in writing, seemed to sway councilors.

On Monday, the council voted 11-3  12-1 11-2 to enter into the agreement with Phoenix House, reversing its 10-4 vote a week earlier. The two councilors voting against the resolution were Progressives Emma Mulvaney-Stanak (Ward 3) and Marrisa Caldwell (Ward 3). Councilor Karen Paul (I-Ward 6) had left the meeting by the time the vote was taken.

The settlement ensures the Phoenix House Community Work Group, an existing panel that includes representatives from city departments, the Burlington Business Association, Church Street Marketplace, will continue as long as the house remains in operation.

That group has already been meeting for months, and was aware of the Phoenix House proposal, but not that it had received all of its permits.

You can read the full settlement here (Download Phoenix House Settlement Agreement), which the city released today.

The mayor, who urged the council to back off its desire to fight the project, said he was happy with the settlement.

"The need in Burlington for transitional housing, as it is for many other communities across Vermont, is critical," said Kiss. "Without these services, many people in recovery are left with no choice but to return to unsupervised housing in the community, a result that all too often undermines their ability to succeed. Failure to succeed has personal consequences and it has a serious impact on family, friends, and the greater community."

Councilor Ed Adrian (D-Ward 1) said Monday night that absent the council's action last week — it's not likely the city would be anchoring these settlement items in a formal agreement with Phoenix House.

According to the settlement, Phoenix House must give Burlington residents, or previous city residents, preference in housing. Sex offenders will not be allowed into the program, nor would most offenders with a history of violence or drug dealing.

Phoenix House also agrees to have overnight and weekend coverage and conduct random urine and breath tests.

The city also agrees, in its settlement, that Phoenix House will not create an undue burden on city services. That was a major concern of councilors, and was also a concern voiced by Police Chief Michael Schirling. Schirling also said that more transitional housing is needed, especially given the push at the state level to release more offenders into communities as part of the recent "Challenges for Change" legislation.

To save money, the state wants to release more non-violent offenders into the community and provide those communities with some additional funds to help create support services.

Another lingering concern is the "process" about whether the City Council was kept in the dark about the proposal.

The mayor acknowledged Monday that he has directed staffers to ensure councilors are informed when Act 250 and zoning decisions are provided to the clerk's office. Though notices of both permits were posted in City Hall, they were not also distributed to councilors.

David White, the city's planner, told Seven Days that since the permit application was for a permitted use, it would not have been on a public agenda. However, White said it was posted on the city's daily "Zoning Activity Reports" from the time the application was deemed complete — February 8 — until the end of the 15-day appeal period, which was February 23.

According to White, this was the timeline for Phoenix House's permit approval:

Application Received (Feb. 4)

Incomplete Application (Feb.  5)

Complete Application (Feb. 8), Administrative Review

Decision: Approved with Pre-Release Conditions (Feb.  8)

Pre-Release Conditions Met (March 3)

Approved Permit Picked Up (March 3)

In fact, Mayor Kiss told Seven Days that despite the fact that there were ongoing discussions it even took him by surprise that BHA and Phoenix House had all of their permits approved.

Rep. Jason Lorber (D-Burlington) who urged his fellow Democrats last week to allow Phoenix House to open, was glad to see the council change its course of action.

"It is clear as day that prisons should be reserved for the people we're scared of, not the people we're mad at. That means that we must have alternatives that are cost-effective and work well. Phoenix
House fits those criteria," said Lorber. "We should be creating new support systems, or expanding the ones we have — not erecting barriers. For the non-violent offenders with drug and alcohol addictions who are
willing to face their demons, make amends, and become productive members of our society, we should be asking, 'How can we help?'"

While I pound on Mayor Kiss from time to time on a daily basis for his decisions, this is not pick on Bob Kiss day.
The Mayors comments that he was surprised all permits were approved, leave me with one question. Does anyone in this city know what the hell is going on? Correction, two questions.
Why didn't the mayor know what was going on?
I guess were back to picking on Mayor Kiss day as he admits he did not know what was going on.

Who are the Marketplace business owners who complained? I'd like to boycott their establishments just for discriminating against people who are trying to recover.

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