By Tim Gardner
Avery’s Board of Commissioners have tabled deliberations about having a reentry house in the county due to issues with finding a suitable location for such a facility and opposition from its citizens for having one.
The commissioners held a public hearing and two public roundtable discussion meetings to solicit citizen input about the Community Development Block Grant Program Revitalization Grant for an Avery County Reentry Housing Facility.
They voted to change the location of the proposed facility from 240 Prison Camp Road (Old Avery Prison Camp site) in the Three Mile Community to county owned property on a 14-acre site in the 1400 block of Elk Park Highway, near the county’s (Three-Lane) Waste Station. In May, the commissioners received a six-month extension from the North Carolina Department of Commerce to provide ample time to conduct an environmental review on the Elk Park Highway site and request release of funds for a reentry house.
The original proposed site for the reentry house on Prison Camp Road is currently owned by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, but turned out not to be available. Thus, a move to another location was necessitated. But most Avery citizens who spoke at the public hearing and roundtable discussions were in strong opposition to the new location or a reentry house being located anywhere in the county.
As a result, in a letter dated October 25, 2023 to the Department of Commerce and on behalf of the whole Board of Commissioners, its Chairwoman Martha Hicks requested the following one-year grant submission extension dates with the Community Block Grant Development program for such a facility:
Project Funding Obligated- March 19, 2025 to March 19, 2026
Project Funding Expended -June 19, 2025 to June 19, 2026
Project Closeout- September 19, 2025 to September 19, 2026.
Hicks said these extensions will give her and the other commissioners more time to seek further input from the county’s citizens about having a reentry house and conduct another environmental review and assessment if necessary.
“We will discuss the prospects of a reentry house more later, and we will do or not do what we believe a majority of our citizens want or don’t want when ultimately deciding whether to have one or not have one,” Hicks added.
In November 2022, Avery County was awarded a Community Development-Reentry Housing Block Grant from the North Carolina Department of Commence in the amount of $950,000.00 to construct a 3,000 square-foot facility to provide transitional housing for individuals reentering society after serving prison sentences.
The County also received a grant from Dogwood Health Trust in the amount of $350,000.00 for the reentry housing project.
The beneficiaries of the reentry housing project are assumed to be a “special population” and all low-income individuals.
Reentry houses are also called “Community Corrections Centers.” But several years ago, the Bureau of Prisons renamed them “Residential Reentry Centers.” This new name indicates that the Bureau of Prisons views a reentry house as a place reserved for people leaving prison, as opposed to a place where a person can serve his or her entire sentence.
However, not all who are eligible to live in reentry facilities are former prisoners. Others who have suffered through drug addiction and related problems, but who did not serve jail sentences, can also be housed in a reentry home. Those living in such must participate in programs to heal from their addiction or related issues, and if they are former prisoners, to keep them from committing offenses that could put them back in prison.
The citizens who have spoken out against Avery County having a reentry house maintain that the commissioners should not help those who will live in reentry facilities over county residents who haven’t served prison sentences or had drug or related problems and offenses.
The commissioners declared they are not prioritizing helping those eligible for reentry housing before the county’s other citizens, and that they have, and will continue to help everyone who needs their assistance to the best of their abilities and resources.
Milana Ward of Freedom Life Ministries in Newland coordinates reentry housing for the organization and said if the County ever has a reentry house, it will be only for people from Avery County as those from other areas will not be placed in the same facility.
Commissioner Dennis Aldridge said that the Community Development Block Grant Revitalization Grant for the proposed Avery County Reentry Housing Facility is “specifically for that need and funds to it cannot legally be used for any other purpose.” Additionally, he pointed out that various other grants specifically providing for housing needs for other county citizens have been obtained by the Board of Commissioners and more will be pursued.”
In addition to Hicks and Aldridge, the Avery Board of Commissioners consists of Tim Phillips (Vice-Chairman), Wood Hall (Woodie) Young, Jr., and Robert Burleson.