County creates hurdles for re-entry center

by MADISON HARDY
Hagadone News Network | October 18, 2020 1:00 AM

Kootenai County residents have made it clear: They don't want a prison reentry center. To ensure no such facility could be imposed by the state freely, the board of commissioners unanimously approved a set of new rules to be added to the county's Land Use and Development Code.

Work on the ordinance began in December 2019 after the board authorized Kootenai County community development staff and planning commissioners to draft possible public review parameters.

Before the ordinance, Kootenai County's Land Use and Development Code did not have any reentry center provisions. Without it, the county would have been susceptible to a possible decision by the state to move forward with an application for establishing a center with minimal county input. To combat it, the Planning and Zoning Commission began drafting the code amendment with limitations.

"If a proposal came before us and we had nothing in our ordinances and decided we simply didn't like it and rejected it, it could potentially go to court and be ruled capricious and arbitrary," Commissioner Chris Fillios said.

After a public hearing in September where residents and the planning and zoning commission were able to suggest revisions, David Callahan, director of community development, and deputy civil prosecuting attorney Pat Braden finalized its language.

"This is a very limiting approach," Callahan said at the open of Thursday evening's community development meeting. "It sets up a set of rules on which the county would process any future reentry center, but it is a difficult test, and there is no guarantee the center would be approved."

Under the ordinance, a potential center would be allowed only in commercial, mining, and light industrial districts - which Callahan said are the least numerous in the county. A facility will also be required to be at least half a mile away from residential use facilities, including duplexes, churches, schools, childcare, and all areas zoned residential.

"It can't be within a half-mile of any residential zones, which would be agricultural, restricted residential, high-density residential, or agricultural suburban," Callahan said. "Those four are most of the county, so when you back off half a mile from all of those areas and all those other things, I would frankly be surprised if there are more than a handful of lots in the entire county that would work."

Even so, a seller of any such property would have to agree with the center's intended use, Callahan said.

According to the ordinance, a facility would also have to be a minimum of three acres property with enough space to house anywhere from nine to 100 offenders - reduced from the typical 130.

"There are several standards for these facilities that were meant to be worded in a way that they are tough to meet," Braden said. "Basically saying we really don't like these, we'll give them a shot, but they better have a damn good plan and a damn good proposal."

By the planning and zoning commission's definition, a reentry facility "allows offenders to work while becoming reunited with families and the community, offers selected offenders who are nearing release a chance to prepare themselves for release and provides protection to the community through high accountability and security of the offenders housed in the facility."

A potential reentry center run by the Idaho Department of Correction would provide counseling, job opportunities, drug testing, and a chance for sober reentry into society. Through these efforts, reentry centers attempt to reduce the likelihood of felons re-offending.

According to a non-binding advisory vote in May, 78% of Kootenai County voters opposed a reentry center in the area.

"I've never seen 78% of people vote one way, and this is not Republicans or Democrats," Commissioner Bill Brooks said. "This is a community, and what they are saying is 'no, no, and hell no,' and I think that's pretty clear."

Ordinance info: https://keepingkootenai.com/faqs