Supreme Court reverses halfway house decision


Plans by the Arkansas Department of Community Correction to house paroled inmates at four halfway houses on DCC property in Pine Bluff that were halted by Circuit Judge Rob Wyatt Jr. last year can proceed after the State Supreme Court reversed Wyatt’s ruling Thursday and dismissed the case.

The city of Pine Bluff had filed suit against the DCC and the state last year seeking to halt plans for the halfway houses and contending that any change in the use of the buildings required approval of the city’s zoning department.

Writing for the five-member majority, Chief Justice Jim Hannah said Wyatt erred when he concluded that the Arkansas General Assembly intended to waive the state’s sovereign immunity from a lawsuit when it adopted rules requiring that DCC set minimum standards for transitional housing, including complying with any local zoning ordinances.

Associate Justice Karen Baker, one of two members of the Supreme Court to dissent, said the ruling “provides that not only is it discretionary with the Board whether or not they will comply with local zoning ordinances, but that the Board may also disregard all of (the law’s) requirements, including compliance with state and federal health and safety codes, fire codes and plumbing codes.

“This is an absurd result that directly conflicts with the legislature’s stated purpose,” Baker said in her dissent.

The decision dissolves an injunction that Wyatt had issued prohibiting DCC from operating the facility until it went before the Planning Commission or City Council for approval of the project.

In early 2012, DCC announced plans to convert four duplexes that were previously used to house DCC personnel who were undergoing training into halfway houses for about 30 inmates who had been approved for parole but did not have families or friends to live with. The former inmates would be expected to work and pay rent, and would not be subject to 24-hour-per-day supervision, but DCC officials said a parole officer would have an office in one of the buildings. The former inmates would be separated from the current facility, which houses women, by two sets of fences. Additional lighting and cameras also would be added, officials said.

Although the Supreme Court ruling refers to three existing buildings, the original announcement from DCC indicated four buildings were involved.

After DCC announced its plans, several residents on Pine Bluff’s west side complained to the City Council, and City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott filed a lawsuit against DCC and the state, alleging that the city “would suffer irreparable harm if DCC is permitted to use a portion of the facility for a halfway/transitional house in that approximately 30 parolees will be concentrated, in close proximity, of the citizens of that area.”

Hadden-Scott said Thursday afternoon she would have to read the full opinion before she decided whether to ask the high court to reconsider its decision.

“I’m sure there are going to be a number of residents in that area who are going to be disappointed with the ruling,” she said, adding that a number of people on the west side of the city signed petitions opposing the DCC proposal.

The property where the halfway/transitional houses are located was originally annexed into the city limits of Pine Bluff in 1999, along with other prison property such as the Pine Bluff Unit, the Randall Williams Unit (formerly the Jefferson County Jail), and the now closed Diagnostic Unit, and was grandfathered in as a non-conforming use of the city’s zoning code, which classified the entire area as R-1 (Residential).

During a trial on the lawsuit last May, Pine Bluff zoning official Lakisha Hill said the property used by DCC and the Department of Corrections was “legal non-conforming use” under the city zoning code, and when DCC changed the use of the duplexes, it “changed the legal, non-conforming use of the property.”

Assistant Attorney General Scott Richardson, who represented DCC and the state, argued that the state was immune from being sued on the issue, and that the department had been given the authority to use the property as it saw fit by the Legislature.

Wyatt’s ruling was based on a state statute that requires the board of corrections to set minimum standards for halfway/transitional housing facilities, including compliance with any local zoning ordinance.

The state and DCC contended that the statute did not mean that “municipal corporations are vested with veto power over the board and DCC,” Hannah said in the ruling.

“The purpose of the statute is not, as the City asserts, to give the City the power to enforce its zoning regulations. Rather, the purpose of the statute is to set out the authority, and obligations of the board. In other words, the Legislature specifically provided (in the statute) that the entity responsible for the enforcement of compliance with a municipality’s zoning ordinance is not the municipality, but DCC, a state agency, “Hannah said in the opinion.

In her dissent, Baker said the intent of the Legislature when the statute was adopted was “to provide regulations to protect the individuals in the programs and to protect the neighborhoods and communities in which the programs are located.”

The law says the board rules require that when the board adopts rule for halfway-transitional housing, those rules have to include “compliance with any local health and safety codes, including housing codes, fire codes, plumbing codes, and electrical codes, set by the jurisdiction or jurisdictions in which the transitional housing facility is located.”

The law also requires complying with any local zoning ordinances, and compliance with any state and federal health and safety codes.

An email to Rhonda Sharp, spokeswoman for DCC was not returned Thursday.