Transitional housing added to county code

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Staff Writer

COEUR d'ALENE — Transitional housing will be added to Kootenai County’s zoning code.

The proposal, approved by commissioners on a 2-1 vote during a 2 hour, 45 minute public hearing on Thursday night, gives the Kaleidoscope Community Services nonprofit the chance to apply for a conditional-use permit for a tiny home village to serve the homeless population that desires to become productive in society.

Commissioners Bob Bingham and Chris Fillios approved the Planning Commission’s recommendation to allow transitional housing in high-density residential and commercial areas of the county with a conditional-use permit.

"There are enough conditions attached to granting a conditional-use permit and we will still evaluate each proposal," Fillios said.

Details such as placing a time and size restriction on the village and stringent neighbor notification can be part of the CUP process.

Commissioner Marc Eberlein opposed allowing transitional housing in the county’s zoning code, citing concerns for neighbors. He suggested restricting transitional housing to areas of city impact so such projects would be close to services.

Commissioners bantered whether to also add mining and light industrial zones to the code as other areas where transitional housing would be appropriate with a CUP, but those additions would have required an additional public hearing and public notification. Therefore, Fillios and Bingham opted to approve only what the Planning Commission recommended.

Gar Mickelson, executive director of the nonprofit, said the tiny home village would be faith-based with the intent of getting people the services they need to get them on their feet.

Mickelson said the nonprofit has secured three 5-acre site options for the "Pathfinder" village that would be leased for $1 a year. He declined to disclose those sites in the county, but said during the meeting that one is in the Garwood area.

Such details would be revealed during the CUP process.

While the hearing only pertained to whether to add transitional housing to the county’s zoning code, most of the discussion and interest was on the project itself, which will be bantered during the CUP process.

Mickelson said the two-year pilot project would have 10 housing insulated cabins with electricity to start; security and medical cabins; a gated entry; community center for dining, showers and portable restrooms; a kennel area for dogs; and community garden.

His nonprofit plans to buy a van to assist with transportation if it's needed.

Mickelson said homelessness needs to be dealt with as Heritage Health saw 700 homeless people in 2017 with its mobile clinic and student homelessness is an issue.

Despite a snowstorm, 18 people attended the hearing at the county’s Administration Building.

Rob Orth, of Rathdrum, and T.J. Byrne, who operates Heritage Health’s homeless outreach program, spoke in favor of the proposal.

Orth said the village would be a hand up, not a hand out.

"We don’t need another hand-out program in the county," he said, adding that details such as transportation would be vetted during the CUP process.

Athol’s Deborah Rose spoke on behalf of multiple attendees in opposition to the proposal.

She said no one opposing the request denies homelessness is an issue that needs to be dealt with, but allowing a transitional housing project outside the cities isn’t the correct response.

"To best address our country’s growing homeless crisis, our focus ought to be on preventing homelessness in the first place," she said. "Resources and efforts would far better serve this population by providing low-income housing, permanent supportive housing and other well-proven housing models."

She said the transitional housing model has been identified to be low-performing in other areas.

"This (transitional housing) is the wrong model, it is in the wrong location, it is non-specific and it is liable to increase operating costs in the county," she said. "This is not charity, but it relocates and isolates the homeless, increasing their dependence upon one source and perpetuating that dependency."

Rose is concerned that, as a result, the transitional housing could become permanent with more future requests for tiny homes.

"Concentrating a needy and troubled population into a small rural encampment is unhealthy for our community," she said.

Rose said a holistic approach is needed to combat homelessness if lasting results are desired.

"Let us find ways to allow people the opportunity to learn new skills while aiding and supporting them on their journey out of their homeless status," she said.

Rose said her suggestions may not be the easiest or quickest response to homeless concerns, but it would be more effective.

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