Bellingham approves second work-release home for Sehome neighborhood

By next summer, the Sehome Neighborhood could get a new 16-bedroom facility for prisoners who are given work release but remain under supervision.

The city Hearing Examiner has approved a permit for the facility, which is planned to go in at 1125-27 N. Garden St., on the same lot as an existing work-release house operated by the nonprofit Community Work Training Association.

The building could not serve as a work-release house without legislative approval and staffing from the Department of Corrections, but property owner Mike Hays and staff at the current facility are working with the department to line up funding.

“There’s a chance we could build it and they don’t take it, but I think it’s pretty slim,” Hays said. “We won’t know for sure if (the department will) take it until March or April, since they need the state to fund the facility through the normal biennium budget process.”

Hays, of Hammer Properties, also owns many of the surrounding properties. He had first planned to build another unit designed for multiple families on the property before learning more about the work release program.

The design for the building is in the works, and will be built to fit the style of the neighborhood, which has many homes constructed more than 100 years ago, Hays said.

“It’s going to look different ... but we’re trying to get as many traits as we can so it fits in and doesn’t stand out like an ugly duckling,” Hays said.

Cynthia Bach, who owns the neighboring house with her husband, Troy, was strongly opposed to the expansion. Bach said she and her husband spent thousands of dollars sending letters and notices to area neighbors to make sure they knew to weigh in on the proposal before an August meeting before the city’s hearing examiner.

“I’m really disappointed,” Bach said. “It’s just frustrating. I’m still not in favor of the project, and I doubt many of the people in the neighborhood are. It still just appalls me.”

Dozens of concerned neighbors wrote to the city before the hearing, questioning the safety of housing inmates so close to a university and sharing stories of feeling uneasy when walking by the existing house.

The permit, which was issued in late September, puts several limits on the property.

The total number of residents allowed between the two structures is 50, and the new building can house only 25 people. If either home is ever converted for some other use, the other building would be allowed to house a maximum of 25 people.

The permit also stipulates that whoever runs the facility will need to minimize negative effects on the neighborhood by providing an anti-harassment program to eliminate catcalls, whistling, and other harassment of passersby, and the site manager should post a sign with a contact number for anyone who has questions or problems.

The property also will get a fence to the south to separate it from the Bachs’ property.

Five years after the new home is signed off as safe for people to live in, the Hearing Examiner will review the case and see how things are working out.

The current building, which has operated as a work-release home since 1983, is one of 16 work-release homes in the state. The next-closest home is in Snohomish County. Eligible inmates are typically placed based on their home counties.

All of the halfway house’s residents are within six months of their prison release and have been awarded minimum security status by the Department of Corrections. Their applications for work release are screened by a committee that includes a police officer, and the inmates are not allowed to own or drive cars or to smoke at the house, which has video surveillance and 24-hour staff, said Karen Stoos, who manages the current facility.

“Overall, I think the building’s going to be an improvement to the city,” Hays said.