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Originally published Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 7:55 PM

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State won't pursue Skagit County home for youth offenders

For the past 10 months, the state has pressed Skagit County to approve a special-use permit to site a 16-bed facility for youth offenders in the area.

Skagit Valley Herald

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SEDRO-WOOLLEY — The state has decided not to continue fighting to locate a youth-offender home on the former Northern State Hospital campus.

For the past 10 months, the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA) has pressed Skagit County to approve a special-use permit to site a 16-bed facility for youth offenders on the campus. Earlier this month, Skagit County commissioners upheld a ruling by the county's hearing examiner to deny the permit.

The deadline for the JRA to appeal the commissioners' decision came and went Wednesday. Late Wednesday, a spokesperson for the agency said the agency had decided not to appeal and gave no further comment.

"That's wonderful news," said state Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, who has fought for more transparency in the permitting process for the facility. "It's a victory for the locals. ... I think the JRA realized that there are a lot of smart people (in Sedro-Woolley) and they ask great questions, and I don't think they (the JRA) could honestly answer a lot of those questions with a straight face."

The county's earlier ruling stated the agency could not site a youth-offender home on the former hospital campus because zoning there did not allow it. The county called the proposed home a "satellite correctional facility" of the state youth correctional system.

The JRA disagreed, saying it was a group-home setting. The plan allowed for up to 16 youths to stay at two cottages on the campus. Agency officials had said the location was attractive because of the nearby Job Corps campus.

A similar youth home had been located in Ephrata, near another Job Corps site.

Sedro-Woolley residents would be safe, officials said, because only low-risk youths with a desire to better themselves would live in the proposed facility. Officials added that the cost to the local school district would be minimal because it was the intent of the JRA to enroll the youths into Job Corps programs.

Residents, however, were skeptical from the start, and voiced concerns about the agency's plan for Job Corps.

Skagit County Prosecutor Rich Weyrich, who is also a Sedro-Woolley School Board member, had said only the "worst of the worst" are in the state youth correctional system.

"We are pleased," Weyrich said Thursday of the JRA's decision not to appeal. "We think there's bigger and better uses for the facilities in Northern State than a juvenile correctional facility."

Sedro-Woolley Superintendent Mark Venn said he's been concerned about the state's proposal because the JRA had not involved the district in preliminary talks about how to provide education to their students.

The agency also decided to host its first meeting between Christmas Day and New Year's Day, a time when many district employees were on vacation.

"We weren't in the conversation from the beginning," Venn said. "We were left out of the equation from the very start."

Job Corps entry also is not automatic or easy. If youths don't gain entry, the financial responsibility for their education would fall to the school district.

Youths in the JRA system often need special educational accommodations, which make them more costly to teach. And because the district already had maxed out its reimbursements for state special-education funding, Venn has said it would be an added burden for the rural school district.

Berg said it made sense the JRA gave in to community pressure.

"They would've had to spend a lot of time and energy fighting an almost overwhelmingly unhappy community," Berg said.

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