COOS BAY — At a special meeting Tuesday night, the Coos Bay City Council held a public hearing where it approved Bay Area First Step’s request to turn the old Empire Motel into transitional housing and rehab facility. 

Last night’s hearing was the result of an appeal made by Bay Area First Step, after a May 8 meeting where the Coos Bay Planning Commission decided to deny the rehab center’s Conditional Use Permit. The commission found that the proposal to turn the old motel into a rehab center met almost all of the city’s criteria. However, city staff felt that some verbiage in criteria four was not suitable and they did not approve the request.

Criteria four states the establishment, maintenance and operation of the purpose use will not significantly detrimental to the health, safety and general welfare of persons residing or working in the area.

Unhappy with the decision of the planning commission, BAFS sought out the counsel of a land-use lawyer to prove that its intended use would not have a detrimental effect on the Empire community. An appeal was filed, and it was decided a public hearing would be held for city council to make a decision on the issue.

BAFS lawyer Jennifer Bragar argued that the wording in criteria four was against Oregon state law.

“There are significant legal restraints that govern how the city council must assess a land use application to serve as housing for its population. Under ORS 197.397 subsection four, only clear and objective standards can be applied to housing,” Bragar said.

Additionally, Bragar cited the Fair Housing Act which prevents the council from making land use decisions based on the character of the people who will be residing on the property.

“That error by the planning commission to rely on public testimony that drew stereotypical conclusions about the character of BAFS tenants, and the use of that testimony as a basis for denial is what brings us to this appeal tonight,” Bragar said.   

Several citizens came out to give testimony both for and against the approval of the appeal.

Many success stories from the BAFS program attended to share with the council how BAFS’s similar facilities in the area helped them reclaim their lives.

Local citizen and recovering addict Paul Gonzalez said, “What BAFS has given me is since I’ve been in recovery is priceless. There’s no way I can pay back what they’ve given to me. They’ve given me a life I never knew I wanted. There are so many resources out there available to those seeking recovery we just don’t know they are out there.”

While not everyone was in support of this facility, every person who testified spoke fondly of the BAFS’s program. Many who were opposed simply felt that the location was not right for the facility, as the Empire area is an area with significant drug use.

“It’s just a bad place for it. It’s not a good place. It was built in 1946, it’s ready to fall down. Even if you went in and rebuilt the whole thing, I don’t think it would be safe. It’s not like a setting in the country where if these people wander off they have nowhere to go. Down there they can walk a block and go buy drugs,” local citizen Rodger Wilson said.

The final citizen to offer pubic testimony was Tom Osborne, a local pastor. Osborne argued neither for nor against the facility, but rather stated that BAFS has met the criteria for land use, and should not be judged by the opinions of either side.

After hearing from the public, council entered into a discussion about the facility. Council began its discussion by asking the opinion of City Attorney Nathan McClintock.

“Having reviewed the statutes that are available, and the case law available, in my opinion the appeal is well taken,” McClintock said.

Based on the arguments given the city council decided unanimously to reverse the decision made by the planning commission and grant approval for the Conditional Use Permit requested by BAFS

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