Downtown Columbia uprising over proposed federal felony prisoner halfway house

jmonk@thestate.comJuly 29, 2013 

A plan to put a halfway house for federal felony prisoners in a historic district in downtown Columbia, near the proposed Bull Street project, has triggered a rebellion by prominent lawyers, doctors, neighborhood groups, a church and businesses determined to stop the project.

The proposed halfway house is at 1315 Calhoun Street, an area of professional and residential buildings. It is also a block-and-a-half from a proposed private residential and commercial Bull Street development on the grounds of the former state mental hospital. City officials – who already are committing $31 million in city money to the project – hope the property will someday be an urban showcase where thousands live and work.

“Do we need a halfway house – yes. But do we need it in an area the city is trying to gentrify and locate residential and retail establishments – no,” said attorney Dick Harpootlian, one of some 27 plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought late last week challenging a city Board of Zoning Appeals decision to allow a Florida firm, Bannum Inc., to build the halfway house.

In late June, the board voted 3-2 to approve a special exception to city zoning and allow the halfway house to be put in an 8,750 sq. ft building, a former auto parts store that sits on about a half-acre and is adjacent to a small church.

It’s just not the two dozen-plus plaintiffs who hired Columbia attorney Eric Bland who are suing to stop the project. A Rock Hill law firm representing Columbia City Council also filed a separate lawsuit in the Richland County Court of Common Pleas earlier this month.

Both suits name as defendants Bannum, the property owner, Kirkwood Properties, and the city Board of Zoning Appeals.

Toby Ward, a Columbia attorney who represents Bannum and Gretchen Dawson of Kirkwood Properties, declined comment Monday. Ward saidhe had just read Bland’s lawsuit but had not read City Council’s. Besides, Ward said, neither Bannum nor Dawson has yet authorized him to speak to the media.

Efforts to reach Ernest Cromartie III, a Columbia lawyer who is chairman of the Board of Zoning Appeals, were unsuccessful Monday.

On June 11, the Board of Zoning Appeals held a public hearing, where Ward spoke in favor of the project. His application for an exemption to city zoning said a halfway house will “benefit the public interest by transitioning persons from the city of Columbia and the surrounding area in returning to their homes and family by providing monitored employment and housing, and assistance with reestablishments of family ties.”

At the same hearing, numerous residents spoke against the project, citing concerns about increased vehicle traffic, pedestrian safety, noise and illegal activity. In any case, they said they already contend daily with a sizeable influx of homeless people and object to adding yet another group of people with few ties to the community.

On June 27, Cromartie signed an order granting a zoning exception to Bannum for a 47-resident halfway house. The order also said the proposed project would have no adverse impact on the surrounding area and stipulated that “residents shall be nonviolent federal offenders.”

Bannum is a for-profit firm that operates nine other halfway houses in six states for paroled federal prisoners. There is another South Carolina facility in Greenville.

The controversy was triggered by the upcoming expiration of a long-running contract between the Alston Wilkes Society and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons. The contract has allowed Alston Wilkes, a Methodist-affiliated nonprofit group, to operate a federal prison halfway house in Columbia. since the mid-1980s. Currently, that halfway house is on the 1200 block of Bull Street, just off Gervais. The intersection of Bull and Gervais – two major commuter routes – is a commercial area that includes a gas station.

Bannum and Alston Wilkes have submitted bids to the Bureau of Prisons to run Columbia’s federal prisoner halfway house, said Erin Wagner, Alston Wilkes marketing director. If Bannum wins the bid, Alston Wilkes would likely have to close its facility, she said.

Wagner also said the 45 or so Bull Street federal parolees, who are called residents, have been thoroughly vetted for behavior issues by the Bureau of Prisons and are usually very well-behaved.

“When they get here, they are ready to start their lives over again, and they are very grateful for the opportunity,” Wagner said. The facility has video surveillance and day and night staff, she said. Residents must submit to drug and alcohol tests, and they do not have cellphones, she said. All have jobs. The lawsuits against Bannum, Dawson and her Kirkwood Properties and the city Board of Zoning Appeals allege that putting a federal prisoner halfway house is – by city law – so incompatible with permitted uses that it would be unlawful to allow it to operate.

Developments in the city’s downtown business district must be “generally complementary to uses and characteristics of use ordinarily in found the retail core, or central business district,” Bland’s lawsuit says.

Developments in that core area should help create “a high quality, pedestrian-friendly environment” in the center district and “promote new residential development in the city center as a means of injecting around-the-clock life into the area,” Bland’s lawsuit says.

The suits ask the courts to reverse the Board of Zoning Appeals, calling its decision “unlawful” and without proper foundation in law.

Mayor Steve Benjamin, while declining to comment on the council-authorized lawsuit, issued a statement Monday condemning the proposed halfway house on Calhoun Street.

“Our residents have made their opposition to this proposal clear and I fully support them,” Benjamin said.

“We’ve seen explosive growth with hundreds of millions in new downtown capital investment over the past two years. As we seek to continue that revitalization throughout our downtown business district and neighborhoods, we recognize that this is neither the time nor the place to take a step backwards.”

In recent months, City Council has authorized the Rock Hill law firm of Spencer & Spencer – known for its land use expertise – to intervene in Board of Zoning Appeals cases.

Besides Harpootlian, other plaintiffs include the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, Dr. Donald Stout, the Cottontown/Bellevue Historic District Neighborhood Association, AgFirst Farm Bank, Arsenal Hill Neighborhood Association, Capital City Printing, Elizabether Marks & Associates, the Robert Mills Historic Neighborhood Association and Foundation Mortgage Corp.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344

The State is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service