Sex predator housing issue debated

There are two sides to the sexual predator housing coin — zone alone or leave it up to the state Department of Social and Health Services — and city officials are stumped over which to bet on.

Federal Way city staff have recommended crafting zoning regulations —and ensuring autonomy — for secure transitional housing for sexual predators released from McNeil Island but not ready for unsupervised, unsecured community living.

But some City Council members fear if they go too far in preparing zoning regulations, they might as well be raising their hands and asking the state to put a facility in Federal Way.

“The main reason I didn’t want to initiate zoning is because if we step forward as a city to be proactive, we may be put on a radar,” said Deputy Mayor Dean McColgan. “I wasn’t prepared to be put on that radar yet.”

Derek Matheson, assistant city manager, said there could be a perception that by adopting zoning guidelines for sexual-predator housing, the city would be asking for them to live here. That’s not the case, he said. Rather, the city should be prepared if the state decides to place a facility in the city.

Because King County sends the highest number of sexual predators to McNeil Island each year, a secure community transition facility is likely to occur in King County first, staff told city officials.

Under the law, the county will have to make housing provisions for between five and 15 sexual predators by 2007.

In turn, cities have until Sept. 1 this year to come up with zoning regulations if they want to determine themselves where to put housing for sexual predators. If they don’t come up with anything or if their plans are too restrictive — to essentially zone out a facility, for example — the law will preempt them and DSHS’ criteria will be used instead.

Though cities are operating under a Sept. 1 deadline, state law won’t have the authority to preempt until Oct. 1.

Cities are reacting to the law — Senate Bill 6594, signed by Governor Gary Locke this year — but DSHS planners haven’t said a facility is definitely going into a city. Beverly Wilson, associate superintendent for community programs at DSHS’ Special Commitment Center, said the state is still gathering data on prospective sites.

DSHS could pick a city for King County’s first facility, but it also could decide a rural, unincorporated area is more suitable. If that’s the case, cities won’t have to be preempted, anyway.

“We’re not looking at jurisdictions to pick a site,” Wilson said. “We’re looking at what makes a good site.”

Among things that make a site good: it’s not within the line of sight from public parks, schools, libraries, bus stops, recreation centers, churches or other places where vulnerable people might frequent, but it’s still close to adequate services.

DSHS is looking to site the first facility soon to show the state is making progress in improving conditions at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island.

A federal district court in 1999 ruled the state must pay $50 a day per resident until improvements, including arrangements for the community transition of qualified residents, are made.

The state has accumulated more than $4 million in sanctions.

“We have a great urgency to site as soon as we can because of a federal injunction,” Wilson said. “It’s the key issue the court is focusing on.”

Federal Way’s neighboring cities also are dealing with the issue.

Auburn’s planning and community development committee will be reviewing the issue later this month, Mayor Pete Lewis said. He said he doesn’t have a sense yet whether the city will pursue its own zoning or will default to DSHS criteria.

Kent has zoning regulations in place already for housing similar to the secure community transition facilities. Kent’s land-use and planning committee will discuss the issue Monday and then open it up to a public hearing, planning manager Charlene Anderson said.

While Kent has applicable regulations in place, there’s no guarantee the city will pursue its own zoning for the sexual predator housing.The city council “could say forget it,” Anderson said.

Federal Way City Councilman Eric Faison said he thinks his city should do its own zoning for the facilities.

“There’s no harm in it, and if we’re preempted, we’re back to where we started,” he said.

If Federal Way took up its own zoning cause, the process for siting would be subject to the city’s procedural requirements, including public notices and public meetings, Faison said.

Councilman Michael Park said he’s conflicted over the issue, but thinks the timing is too tight to be able to conduct the public process for zoning amendments.

“Because there’s a time-constraint issue, at this moment, there’s no way we can meet the deadline,” he said. “Even if we rush the issue, the time frame we’re looking at is the end of the year or early part of next year.”

Still, if timing wasn’t an issue, he’d rather direct staff to prepare zoning regulations to keep the city at the helm, Park said.

“It makes the most sense,” he said. “Either option is not a clear winner. There’s a lot of ups and downs.”

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