Home for parolees prompts questions

Worries include safety as well as property values

A transitional house for local parolees came under scrutiny at a public meeting Monday night.

Since the 12-bed facility, operated by the Christian-based nonprofit Southwest Transitions, accepted its first residents in June, the county has received various questions and complaints from neighbors. The meeting was a way to answer residents’ questions and hear their concerns, county officials said.

Representatives from the county planning department, building department, administration and sheriff’s department were present, as well as La Plata County Commissioners Wally White and Kellie Hotter.

More than 50 people attended the meeting and asked questions about almost every aspect of the facility, located in the old Valley View Lodge at 5802 County Road 203. Questions included the nonprofit’s funding sources and the specifics of rules governing residents.

Southwest Transitions president Frank Hiemer said residents, all of whom are male, must follow their parole requirements as well as the facility’s rules, which include a strict policy of no drugs or alcohol.

He emphasized that the parolees would be living in the county, transitional house or not. Southwest Transitions is a crucial resource for 30 percent of people paroled in the county who are homeless, he said.

Several residents complained that the county’s planning department allowed the transitional house without a full review process. But interim planning director Gary Suiter reaffirmed the fact that the transitional house did not need to go through the planning process, because it was not determined to be a change of use from the Valley View Lodge, which was an extended stay facility.

Change of use or not, neighbors said the county should have required some sort of neighborhood information and feedback meeting.

Leslie Melton’s kitchen window is 102 feet from Southwest Transition’s building.

“The commissioners and (planning director) Gary Suiter let everybody down (in the) fact that we were not involved in any of this,” Melton said before the meeting. “This interferes with the community we have here because you’ve got a bunch of convicts running around.”

News of the transitional house was “a shocker,” resident Tom Williams said. The neighborhood would have much appreciated an informational meeting before the project began, he said.

Suiter agreed that in hindsight the county should have organized a neighborhood meeting on the front end.

Residents also questioned the nonprofit’s plans for 2 acres of land to the south of its property that are currently for sale.

Hiemer affirmed that he would like to someday buy the 2 acres to build additional housing for populations in need, including veterans. Construction waste and infill materials that his organization is piling on the property are allowed by the current owner and will soon be hauled away or buried, Hiemer said.

Residents mentioned safety concerns that Lt. Ed Aber from the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office addressed with call history data.

In the one year before Southwest Transitions moving into the old lodge, the sheriff’s department responded to 14 calls at that location. Since June 5, when Southwest Transitions received its first resident, Aber said the sheriff’s department has responded to 10 calls, but eight of those involved residents who were living out their leases with the old Valley View Lodge.

The two calls that involved Southwest Transitions residents were made by the nonprofit’s employees, a fact that “tells me they’re taking care of their own business,” Aber said.

Property values were a concern for many, but county officials didn’t have an answer for them.

The transitional house did have its supporters, with one man arguing that Southwest Transitions screens its clients with stricter standards than most landlords.

The nonprofit requires potential residents to fill out a four-page application, reviews their criminal background and personally interviews each candidate before accepting him into the facility, Hiemer said.

The organization also operates a zero-tolerance policy. If residents break the law or the conditions of their parole they are kicked out.

“They’re hard workers,” Hiemer said of the residents. “They need a second chance.”

ecowan@durangoherald.com

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