The Other Side Academy
FILE - The historic downtown Armstrong mansion is home to The Other Side Academy in Salt Lake City Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — An appeals officer is taking a few days to study information about a land use permit for The Other Side Academy before determining whether the city correctly interpreted the phrase "specialized treatment" when giving the OK to the operation.

The academy at 667 E. 100 South is a nonprofit vocational training school for convicted criminals, drug addicts, homeless or anyone in between. Accepted students stay at the two-year rehabilitation facility and learn life skills like accountability and honesty through working in teams at the academy's vocational training schools.

"That's where a lot of the discussion was: What constitutes specialized treatment, and what activities fit within that area," said CEO Tim Stay.

On Wednesday, the academy faced a hearing before the Salt Lake City Planning Division over its conditional use permit.

"Our claim was we don't have doctors, we don't have therapists, we don't have any of the traditional treatment. Our specialized treatment is these vocational training schools and people working together and giving feedback and holding each other accountable. That's our specialized treatment."

The various vocational training schools include The Other Side Movers, the Promise Land Food Truck, a lawn care service and a thrift store opening soon in Murray.

All proceeds from the vocational training schools go directly to house, feed and clothe students, all at no charge to the students.

"Being able to run our vocational training schools as part of our campus where we're located is a critical component," Stay said.

The city issued the academy a conditional use permit in March, authorizing the academy to run as a large group home with specialized treatment. But in April the Salt Lake City Planning Division decided the organization violated land use zoning designations.

Certain "commercial activities," like parking moving trucks on the property or using the facility's kitchen for preparing items of the academy's food truck, aren't allowed in residential areas.

"We had to interpret what specialized treatment could mean within the context of it being in a residential zone," Daniel Echeverria, senior city planner who processed the academy's permit application, told Deseret News earlier this week.

Many community members attended the hearing on Wednesday and voiced their support for The Other Side Academy.

Camille Winnie, who represents the Downtown Alliance on homeless issues, said in a phone interview that she sees firsthand how well the academy model is working. She attended the appeal hearing to voice her support for the academy.

"It's the best thing we've seen in forever. We need more of this, and we need to do everything in our power to figure out how to make it work," she said. "Let's be as lenient as we're able while obeying the rules, but let's not look for opportunities to say no. Let's look for opportunities to say yes, that this is something we desperately need."

Boyd Matheson, president of Sutherland Institute, also supported the academy at the hearing. He said the academy teaches necessary life skills students may have missed because of the troubles in their lives.

"Lives and generations are changing in that vocational program," he said in a phone interview Thursday. "The Other Side Academy should be celebrated, not regulated. If anything, it should be duplicated. Celebrated and duplicated, not regulated to death."

The Other Side Academy serves 67 students, and the average student has been arrested about 25 times. All students apply voluntarily, although many attend as an alternative to incarceration.

"We understand that we're a different model. We don't fit into an easy box for the city," Stay said. "We hope the city can exercise a little bit of flexibility in the interpretation of the existing boxes they do have and allow us to operate the way that we believe works and we've seen evidence work through Delancey Street for the last 40 years."

The Other Side Academy was modeled after the Delancey Street Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization that helps reform convicts and addicts since 1971.

The appeal hearing verdict is expected within the next two weeks. The Other Side Academy has the option to appeal to a district court judge if the city appeal decision is unfavorable.