The Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission spent nearly three hours hearing testimony about a conditional use permit application at its meeting this week. A residence being used as a boarding house for the past several years needed a permit to stay in operation.
When Perry Neel isn’t working as a millwright, he sometimes volunteers in prison ministry at Wildwood Correctional Center. It was through that work that Neel saw a need for transitional housing for recently-released inmates.
“Through this, working with the guys as a mentor, I’d go and pick them up when they’d get released and they’d kick them out the door of the prison at 7 o’clock in the morning and tell them good luck. They didn’t have any place to go, they didn’t have money, they didn’t have transportation to look for a job, they couldn’t find a place to live because they didn’t have a job. It was just kind of an ongoing web. So, I thought what can I do to help, and that’s when my wife and I ran across a foreclosure (at) 160 Phillips Drive."
That was in early 2012. Neel has rented rooms out boarding house style since. He says in the beginning, there was need for regular police visits. But they’ve had a house manager on site since 2013. City staff reported that police are aware of the house.
“Just having adult supervision, you might say, has made a big difference. Not that there’s any program they have to administrate. They’re basically my eyes and ears. My wife and I are the ones that decide when it’s time for somebody to come or go and some of them get to go before they’re ready to go or think they’re ready to go.”
Residents rent one of the five beds on a per-day basis, and house rules dictate common areas like the kitchen and bathroom be kept ready for visits from parole officers any time. No drinking or drugs are allowed.
A number of neighbors spoke at the meeting, many wondering if a rural residential neighborhood is the best place for transitional housing like this, even with a conditional use permit.
Craig Thompson, who owns property across the street, told the commission there are a lot of concerns about drug use off the premises, in a nearby area of the neighborhood that’s been cleared for roads, but is otherwise undeveloped woodlands where it’s not difficult to find used drug paraphernalia.
“First of all, I want to say, hats off, I appreciate what you’re doing, appreciate what’s trying to go on, I just don’t think it’s the appropriate place to do it...Allowing a conditional use permit as a boarding house is a cop out for not creating a correct classification so that they can have an appropriate place to stay. I think it’s in direct conflict with rural residential code, I think it directly affects my property values. I frankly think it affects my health and safety."
Jeff Landrum was an inmate at Wildwood for four years. He told the commission the Neer’s boarding house was key in getting a steady job and his own place when he was released in 2014.
“I’m from Fairbanks, so I didn’t have any place to go...In this time, getting close to release, I learned about Perry (Neel) having his house. So upon release, the day I got out, I was able to go into a house, had a place to live. I stayed there for seven months. Was able to look for a job, which I got. I’m an electrician for Kachemak Electric. Without this opportunity, this place in this area, I don’t know what I would have done...I still stay in touch with Perry...they’ve been a blessing in my life.”
Commissioner Diane Fikes said she had some reservations, but felt comfortable granting the conditional use permit because it will be back up for review in a year.
“I do agree with an annual inspection, so if there are issues from the community, they’ll be made aware of it during that 12 month period. Moving forward, we’ll have some kind of mechanism or tool to say yeah, everything’s going great. Way to go. This is a model of how we want to see this happen. Or, hey, we’ve got a problem...Now, we have a way to keep track of things.”
All six of Fikes’ colleagues on the commission agreed, and the conditional use permit was granted.