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Neighbors Decry Group Home Plan 

Christian prison ministry founder's expertise, compatibility questioned in Wasson-area plan

A dispute between a born-again ex-convict who wants to set up a group home for prison parolees and nearby residents opposed to the plan could end up having repercussions for every residential neighborhood in Colorado Springs.

Michael Stack founded the Christian nonprofit Start Fresh Ministries a little more than a year ago to help ex-prisoners adjust to mainstream living. Stack, who himself has spent 15 years in prison, hopes to set up a group home for parolees in a rented house at 2511 N. Union Boulevard, two doors down from his home on the same block.

The home would be limited exclusively to former inmates who are born-again Christians, and Stack wants to help the men assimilate back into society without backsliding. None of the inmates would be convicted sex offenders, and neighbors would not be told what crimes they had committed in the past. The men would have to apply for residency and would stay between six and 12 months at the home, Stack said.

However, neighbors question whether Stack, a construction laborer with no formal education or training in prison rehabilitation, can run a safe house.

Many neighbors argue that their neighborhood -- which is zoned single-family residential and is home to three elementary schools, a middle school and a nursing home -- is not an appropriate locale for Stack's project.

"A group home for prison parolees simply doesn't belong in any neighborhood that has lots of children and elderly people," said Ceci Turner, who opposes the plan.

Others say that Stack's group home would jeopardize neighborhood safety, lower property values and prompt mass move-outs that would threaten already weak neighborhood schools with closure.

Neighbors say that Stack originally planned to begin operations in mid-September without telling the neighborhood, but he was forced to hold off when neighbors got wind and raised a ruckus with the city.

At the time, Stack insisted that he intended to operate a group home on the block with or without the neighborhood's blessing -- out of his own home, if necessary. Two parolees live with him at present.

Stack pulled back from his hard-line position in a semi-conciliatory letter to the neighbors dated Oct. 29, though he characterized opposition to his ministry as "hatred, intolerance and rejection."

Stack suggested that the neighborhood has already gone to seed. He claims that 50 parolees, "over 100 registered sex offenders" and drug dealers already clog the neighborhood.

"[There is] a biker bar just across the street where, at any given time, you could go in and find someone packing a pistol and drugs," he said. "As to property values declining, they will never decline as much as moral values have already declined!"


Numbers are growing

The neighbors, meanwhile, complain that Stack's operation is poorly funded and inadequately supervised, and that Start Fresh has declined to accept liability in the event of harm to neighbors or their property.

"We don't want to be harsh and unforgiving," neighbor Turner said at a public meeting last Thursday involving city officials, Start Fresh representatives and 130 neighbors who oppose the plan.

"In the right circumstances, many of us would support this program of our own accord with talent and money," she said. "This isn't a not-in-our-neighborhood thing."

State parole supervisor Tom McGuire told last week's gathering that approximately 400 paroled ex-cons live in Colorado Springs, and that those numbers figure to swell considerably as a consequence of the steady rise in the state's prison population over the past decade.

"These people," McGuire cautioned, "will have to have a place to live and work while they fulfill their parole requirements."

McGuire said that there are currently five or six group homes for ex-convicts in Colorado Springs. Nearby neighbors have never complained about any of the other homes, he said.


Precedent-setting

One of the neighbors' main issues is over how the Start Fresh home would be zoned. They want the city to zone the property as a "human service shelter," which would require public hearings and be more restrictive than the "family" zoning designation that Stack prefers.

City planner Paul Tice said the city has never been called on to determine which classification applies to a home for rehabilitating parolees. How the dispute at 2511 N. Union Boulevard is resolved could have precedent-setting repercussions for every residential neighborhood in Colorado Springs, he said.

Zoning codes classify as "family" any group of five or fewer people living in a single dwelling as a housekeeping unit. The involved parties need not be related by blood, marriage or legal relationship. They could, for example, be students.

Were the city to classify group homes for parolees as "family," Start Fresh would be free to locate similar facilities anywhere in town without city approval.

Human Service Shelters, on the other hand, are defined as residential operations that provide "temporary group and supportive services to individuals and/or families in need due to family medical circumstances, economic circumstances or social difficulties."

Since a Human Service Shelter classification entails far stricter constraints, Start Fresh would have to petition for a conditional-use approval, a procedure requiring public input in Planning Commission hearings. In addition, they would have to formally notify neighbors of their plans.

Assistant city attorney Allen Ziegler said that he will research case law and issue a legal opinion over which classification should apply to the home by the end of January.

Tice will then make a final decision over how 2511 N. Union Boulevard should be zoned. Both Start Fresh and opposing neighbors will have a right to appeal the decision to Planning Commission.


On a mission

Start Fresh literature defines itself as a tax-exempt, nonprofit, Protestant group that ministers exclusively to Christian ex-prisoners by means of "discipleship, mentoring, Bible study, counseling, accountability, Christ-centered 12-step support groups [and] job training and support."

"Our purpose is to build the kingdom of God by ministering to the broken hearted, weary and troubled souls," the literature notes.

"Our plan is to open several houses throughout the Colorado Springs area, and possibly expand statewide as houses and property and finances become available."

Ineligible for state and federal funds, Start Fresh is fully dependent on "gifts given by churches, businesses and individuals."

Neighbors say that Stack originally told them that Start Fresh is an outreach of Pulpit Rock, Front Range Alliance and First Presbyterian churches.

In letters sent to the neighbors, however, representatives from all three churches indicate that they are neither affiliated with, nor do they officially endorse, Stack's organization. Stack later claimed that, while his project is not officially sanctioned, some members from those congregations support his efforts.

Start Fresh attorney Bruce Buell concedes that the organization operates on "a shoestring budget." "We don't have a lot of donors yet," he said. "We don't have a whole lot of track record."

"That's part of the problem," replied neighbor Dennis Duran. "An undertaking of this kind requires more than a shoestring budget. Don't go off half-cocked, ill-financed, ill-equipped and ill-prepared. Pick a more suitable location. Don't drop this into the middle of a residential neighborhood."

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