PINE BLUFF — The state Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a judge’s ruling that blocks the state Department of Community Correction to use facilities on land it owns in the city to house paroled inmates.
In a 5-2 decision, the high court reversed Jefferson County Circuit Judge Rob Wyatt Jr.’s ruling that favored the city and dismissed its lawsuit against the agency and the state to block the conversion of DCC personnel housing into halfway houses.
In early 2012, the department announced plans to convert four duplexes that were previously used to house DCC personnel who were undergoing training into halfway houses for about 30 inmates who had been approved for parole but had no other place to live.
The announcement drew complaints from residents who objected to having halfway houses in the area.
The city filed suit against the DCC and the state, contending that any change in the use of the buildings required approval of the city’s zoning department. The state argued that it was immune from litigation on the issue and that the Legislature gave the department authority to use the property as it saw fit.
Wyatt’s ruling in the city’s favor was based on a state statute that requires the state Board of Corrections to set minimum standards for halfway-transitional housing facilities, including compliance with any local zoning ordinance.
The property in the case was originally annexed into the city limits in 1999 along with other prison property, including the Pine Bluff Unit, the Randall Williams Unit — formerly the Jefferson County Jail — and the now closed Diagnostic Unit. The property was categorized as a non-conforming use of the city’s zoning code, which classified the entire area as residential.
Writing for the Supreme Court majority Thursday, Chief Justice Jim Hannah said Wyatt erred when he concluded that the Legislature intended to waive the state’s sovereign immunity from a lawsuit when it adopted rules requiring that DCC set minimum standards for transitional housing.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Karen Baker said the high court ruling not only gives the Board of Corrections discretion whether to comply with local zoning ordinances, but also allows the board to disregard all of the law’s requirements, including compliance with state and federal health and safety codes, fire codes and plumbing codes.
"This is an absurd result that directly conflicts with the Legislature’s stated purpose," Baker wrote.
Justice Josephine L. Hart joined in the dissent.
The decision dissolves an injunction that Wyatt had issued prohibiting DCC from operating the facility until it went before the Planning Commission or City Council for approval of the project.
DCC spokeswoman Rhonda Sharp did not immediately respond to an email Thursday seeking comment.
Ray King writes for the Pine Bluff Commercial