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Proposal for Halfway House Under Attack

Times Staff Writer

A plan by the federal government to operate a halfway house for federal prisoners in the heart of Buena Park’s entertainment strip has drawn strong opposition from City Council members, residents and merchants, city officials said Wednesday.

The facility proposed by the U.S. Justice Department would be a “re-entry” house for 20 to 40 prisoners, housing them for about three months before their scheduled release.

City officials and merchants voiced strong objections to the proposed site--the Frontier Inn Motel on Beach Boulevard--saying a re-entry house at the location would devastate businesses and endanger tourist trade. Community members also fear that the motel between Knott’s Berry Farm and Movieland Wax Museum would house inmates in regular rooms and be open to the public.

The halfway house, which would be one of 330 such facilities nationwide, would house minimum security prisoners convicted of crimes such as tax evasion, mail fraud and bank embezzlement.

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“It’s a chance for them to get re-integrated into society,” said Kathy Morse, public information officer for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Bannum Enterprises, a Kentucky-based firm, is the private agency that has applied for the federal contract to manage the Buena Park facility. In the halfway house there are “no bars, no uniforms, no security guards,” said David Lowry, the firm’s executive director.

Inmates With Families

The residents of the facility would be inmates with families living in Orange County; they would work at regular jobs during the day, save a portion of their income, go home for meals and weekends and then return to the facility at a certain time each night during the week.

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Hoping to block federal approval of the site, City Council members sent telegrams to U.S. legislators Tuesday, Buena Park Mayor Pro Tem Don Griffin said.

Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), who said he “strongly opposed the proposal,” and Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), will meet today in Washington with the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and later with Buena Park Mayor Lester J. Reese to discuss the controversy.

Meanwhile, there was confusion over the status of the halfway house project.

Morse said Bannum Enterprises had withdrawn plans to manage the program at the Buena Park motel earlier this week because of conflict with the city zoning code but wanted to submit a proposal for another location at a later date.

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Griffin, who said the federal government had not entered into a contract with the city, added that Buena Park has received no official word that the Frontier Inn Motel site has been abandoned.

Status in Question

Lowry, in a phone interview Wednesday, said that he had applied for a business license to open the facility in the Frontier Inn Motel. He said the city sent the check back and told him to consider another location in the city, the Melody Manor Motel, which is about two miles from Knott’s Berry Farm.

“We’re willing to look at any area of Buena Park,” he said. “We’re not locked into being on the entertainment strip.”

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He added that the taxes paid by the facility would be an asset to the community and that helping the prisoners get jobs would also bring revenue into the community.

Griffin said that he has no knowledge of Bannum Enterprises’ application for a business license anywhere in the city or of the returned check. He said the company had taken out an application for a conditional use permit but had not filled it out and returned it. Griffin added that zoning laws would not permit a halfway house in that area.

All the while, opposition to the project continues to grow.

Jay Walton, executive vice president of the Buena Park Chamber of Commerce, said, “We’re fully aware there’s a need for such facilities, but to locate it right in the middle of the city will have a devastating, severe impact on the area to continue to develop as a tourist area.”

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“Tourism is the underpinning of Buena Park’s economy,” Walton added. He said the proposed facility might very well deter the 5 million or so visitors who come to the city each year to visit entertainment attractions.

Stuart Zanville, director of public relations for Knott’s Berry Farm, the third largest amusement park in the country behind Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Florida, said the park is “very concerned” about the possible damage such a facility could have on tourist trade.

Zanville said as word gets out about the halfway house some people may reconsider vacationing in the city.

“The general public does not perhaps understand the difference between a halfway house and a federal prison,” he said.

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