Judge OKs Hartford Ex-Inmate Transition Home

— A long-stalled transitional home for former prison inmates has received the go-ahead from a Vermont judge, effectively ending a legal squabble that began more than a year ago.

Dismas of Vermont Inc. now has the authority to convert a Hartford home to a three-apartment “lodging house” meant for furloughed inmates readjusting to life outside the prison system, according to a Sept. 21 decision released by Thomas Walsh, a Vermont Environmental Court judge.

The decision upheld Hartford’s Planning Commission and Zoning Board’s unanimous approvals of Dismas of Vermont’s plan to turn the house at 1673 Maple St. into a 10-person, single family-style abode. It would house eight released inmates and two live-in volunteers, potentially college students, according to Executive Director Jan Tarjan.

The Revs. Lani and Kathy Janisse, co-pastors at the nearby Praise Chapel and the main opponents of the house, had a 30-day period to file another appeal, but that period has passed, Tarjan said.

The Janisses, who own several properties in town, filed their first appeal in July 2011, one month after Hartford officials approved the project, claiming students, parents and residents would feel uneasy with the house close by. At hearing last summer, Walsh repeatedly steered testimony away from public safety concerns, focusing instead on matters relating to the town’s zoning ordinance and master plan.

The Janisses did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.

To quell those public safety concerns, Tarjan said that Dismas House has a thorough vetting process that only accepts released inmates willing to go to work or school. Of those who stay at the House for at least three months, she said, more than three quarters transition successfully to independent living.

“People who are coming out of Vermont prisons are coming back to Vermont communities anyway,” she said. “In this case they just have more support and positive attention for reintegration.” Most residents of the house are furloughed prisoners, Tarjan said.

Furloughed prisoners are closely monitored by the Department of Corrections and are sent back to jail for any minor infraction.

“People who come to Dismas House are carefully selected,” Tarjan said.

“We interview them several times. They are approved to come to a Dismas House by their caseworkers and probation and parole (officers).

Everybody has the community in mind.” Convicted sex offenders cannot live in the house, she added.

According to Hartford Zoning Administrator Jo-Ann Ells, the organization has a six-month period, which commenced on the Sept. 21 decision date, to finalize building permits with the town. They haven’t gone through that process yet, she said, but after it’s completed Dismas will have the green light to begin renovatons.

“They’ve got some time there,” she said.

Tarjan said she hopes the renovation process will get underway during the winter and spring so the 3,800-square-foot house can open next summer. Dismas of Vermont announced its plans to build the Hartford house — its fourth in Vermont — in late 2010, but the appeals process slowed things down considerably.

Dismas officials secured a purchase-and-sales agreement with Twin Pines Housing Trust, which currently owns the property, in 2011. Initially, the newest Dismas House was to open in January 2012.

“Of course the long period of appeal was frustrating for us,” Tarjan said. “But the need is so great, and the support of the town of Hartford and of the community of Hartford have been really strong all along. So we just knew it was going to happen.” Dismas of Vermont hopes to raise the $500,000 necessary for the project beginning with a kickoff event in March, and Tarjan doesn’t doubt it will meet its goal.

“I think that people believe in giving second chances,” she said. “So that, I think, will carry the day.”

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.