Pictured: Fliers with information about human trafficking were distributed at a recent Sitka Police and Fire Commission meeting.

Almost a year ago, local nonprofit Youth Advocates of Sitka received a congressional appropriation to create a facility to house young victims of human trafficking and other exploitation. But the proposed location encountered strong objections from neighbors – and the Sitka Planning Commission refused to grant the facility a permit. Now its future is uncertain.

The $2 million dollar appropriation arrived quietly through Senator Lisa Murkowski about a year ago. The intent was to create a residential treatment facility supporting vulnerable youth experiencing human trafficking and exploitation – by purchasing an existing duplex or other multi-family dwelling and adapting it to this new purpose

Through a pilot program named Coastal Haven, Youth Advocates of Sitka – or YAS – planned to provide mental health care, clinical services, life skills, and employment training for teens and twenty-somethings. While the facility would prioritize Sitkans, it would be open to young people from around the state.

According to documents presented to the Sitka Planning Commission, YAS zeroed in on a possible location for the facility in June of last year – a duplex on Dodge Circle. After receiving the funding in November, they put a $5,000 down payment on the property and signed a purchase agreement, anticipating closing on the sale in January. But since the duplex is in a residential zone, the group needed to first secure a conditional use permit for a “quasi-institutional home” from the Sitka Planning Commission.

But neighborhood pushback was mounting. At the  January 18 meeting of the Planning Commission, nine Sitkans spoke against the facility in person and in writing, sharing concerns about noise, traffic, and maintaining the single family nature of the neighborhood. Area resident Mary Todd Andersen presented a petition with around 30 signatures from neighbors who opposed the proposal. Two Sitkans spoke in favor of the plan, and shared personal stories of youth in their lives who would have benefited from the facility. 

Ultimately, the commission voted unanimously to deny the permit application due to strong objections from the neighborhood. Commissioner Wendy Alderson told KCAW that she felt conflicted about her vote, and ultimately decided that the project didn’t meet all the criteria for a conditional use permit in a residential zone. She said she’s always been an advocate of keeping residential neighborhoods residential. And she said that as a commissioner, it’s her job to consider community feedback, even if she doesn’t always agree.  

“I guess this felt like it was just pushing it a little bit in R1 zone,” Alderson said. “That, on top of the neighborhood turnout, was enough to sway me to vote against issuing the conditional use permit, even though I totally support the project.”

“I think that the fears were greatly exaggerated,” she added. “But that’s not my choice to make. It’s the neighbor’s choice to make, whether they support something like that in the neighborhood, and they overwhelmingly chose not to, so I had to take that into consideration.”

In an email to KCAW, YAS Executive Director Heather Meuret wrote that her organization had nothing more to add to the story.  YAS had until February 1 to appeal the decision, which would have brought it before the Sitka Assembly for deliberation, but according to Planning Director Amy Ainslie, YAS did not file an appeal.

That means YAS will likely have to put the congressionally directed project on hold until they find a new location. KCAW reached out to Senator Murkowski’s office to find out what happens to the funds if YAS can’t identify a space, and they referred us to a representative from the office of Housing and Urban Development, who did not return our request for comment by press time.