Seward approves SeaView zoning permit, with condition

Apr 12, 2021

SeaView Executive Director Christine Sheehan spoke to the Seward Planning & Zoning Commission last week.
Credit City of Seward YouTube

Seward will soon have a second recovery housing facility for people struggling with substance abuse. The city approved a conditional-use permit for SeaView Community Services last week. 

But it comes with a condition — that the planning and zoning commission can review the permit each year. The clause was added after the commission heard an earful from residents who are concerned about the placement of the facility.

Erik Vaneck, who lives near the property at 402 Second Ave., was one of those residents. He said at last week’s planning and zoning meeting he worries about how the facility would impact his neighborhood.

“A person is not going to change until they’re ready to change," he said. "I’m in law enforcement, I know this. This is not the place to have some kind of treatment center. We’re trying to build a family-oriented thing here.”

Jim Doepken, also a neighbor and a member of the SeaView Board of Directors, said the proposal drew a lot of ire on social media.

“The language we use dehumanizes and disparages the very people who are seeking help," he said. "We turn those seeking help into some type of monster.”

The center will be the second recovery housing facility in the area under SeaView Community Services, a Seward-based nonprofit with a focus on substance-abuse recovery and behavioral health.

In 2018, Providence Seward Medical and Care Center identified alcohol and substance misuse as the second highest prioritized health need for Seward. SeaView said in a letter to the commission that the need for treatment has been exacerbated during the pandemic.

SeaView’s current recovery housing facility is on Sixth Avenue in Seward. The facility has a waitlist of over 80 people. 

The property SeaView plans to use has been a lodge and auto repair shop. SeaView could hold 20 people there and eventually plans to bring in a substance-abuse treatment facility and medication-assisted treatment facility, or MAT clinic. 

The plan has received widespread institutional support, including from the Alaska Mental Health Trust and Seward Police Department.

“I have heard concerns these people here to recover will be committing crimes in the community," said Seward Police Chief Alan Nickell in a letter to the commission. "But this is contrary to the truth. The police department has only had one case involving our current recovery housing we are aware of, and the person committed no crimes in our community.”

SeaView said residents in early recovery typically stay four to five months at the substance-free facility, with several hours of outpatient treatment a day at the SeaView Plaza on Railway Avenue. There will be staff at the facility at all times. Executive director Christine Sheehan also said the center will provide all transportation and there will be no visitors allowed.

But several residents insisted they would feel uneasy with the facility nearby. A sticking point for some is the facility is near a school bus stop, in a residential neighborhood. 

Planning and zoning commissioners were split on the decision, too. Craig Ambrosiani said he agreed there's a need for more recovery housing. But he also wondered if the property was the right place.

“If this is going to go in, then we owe it to the community to make sure we’re not disrupting the neighborhood," he said.

He proposed adding a condition that the commission could reconsider the permit if there was an increase in crime in the area related to the facility. Community Development Director Jackie Wilde said she felt the commission was out of bounds to legislate how the center would operate.

“Even with public input, even at the end of the day, the people that don’t want it in their backyard or don’t want it here, we do review that," she said. "But you have to look at how your code stands today. And today, it is an allowable use.”

The commission ultimately approved SeaView’s permit with the condition it would review it annually, with public hearing. It also requires the nonprofit to submit reports to the commission quarterly. 

SeaView could appeal that conditional approval. A decision on an appeal would fall to the Seward City Council.