Effort to Move Shelter In Merrifield in Peril

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Fairfax City's bid to relocate a daytime shelter for the homeless to the Merrifield area is in jeopardy because county officials say they are unlikely to grant the necessary exception to zoning laws.

The City Council voted unanimously Dec. 12 to set aside $2.6 million to buy a 10,000-square-foot office building near Route 29 and Gallows Road -- outside the city limits -- to serve as a new home for the Lamb Center. A ministry of Truro Episcopal Church, the center provides spiritual counseling, job assistance and laundry service for about 60 homeless people a day. City and county officials agree it has outgrown its 3,400-square-foot storefront quarters on Old Lee Highway near Fairfax Circle.

The plan was for the city to buy and hold the property until the center secured county approval to use it as a day shelter. The city would then sell the building, at 2924 Telestar Ct., to the Lamb Center.

But the proposal immediately drew opposition from residents and merchants in the Merrifield-Dunn Loring neighborhood, who accused the city of trying to dump a facility troubled by crowding and crime. Opponents said the scores of homeless people would mar the recent resurgence of the community.

Gerald E. Connolly (D-At Large), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said meetings with city officials, business leaders, residents and Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) led to "a candid assessment" that the location was not supportable.

Connolly said the vacant building could probably serve as a day shelter. But he added: "To me, a reasonable site involves not only functionality but community buy-in. While we did meet the first criteria, we didn't meet the second."

Connolly said Smyth, whose district includes the site, was unwilling to support the zoning exception needed to operate there. "We have informed the city that they have some serious issues to consider," Smyth said.

The city's 45-day option to complete the purchase of the office building expires in the next several days. The City Council will meet tonight to discuss the plan. "I don't know what we're going to do," said Fairfax City Mayor Robert F. Lederer.

Opposition has been compounded by what Merrifield residents say is the city's lack of candor. They said that Lederer and other officials have publicly undersold incidents of trespassing, assault and public drunkenness and that e-mails obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act by the Merrifield Citizens Association depict their desperation to unload the Lamb Center at any cost.

"This situation has gone from bad to worse," said City Council member Joan W. Cross in a March 13, 2006, note to Lederer. "We must find another site and soon!"

"This is getting very troubling," council member R. Scott Silverthorne wrote to Lederer on Feb. 17. "I realize that we all want to be politically correct and say the right things, but we will be facing a revolt by the silent majority in our community if we don't take aggressive action."

When the Lamb Center reopened after a brief closure last winter, Lederer wrote to council members: "18 people in the parking lot at lunch today. None of them looked like they were looking for help to get a job and in fact, none of them looked homeless. They just looked really scary."

Lederer said most of the problems at the Lamb Center came when it served as a pickup and drop-off spot for the Hypothermia Prevention Program. The Merrifield site would not be used as a staging area, he said.

E-mails also show that in addition to the $2.6 million purchase price, the city is prepared to spend $771,000 to renovate the building and help with attorney's fees in seeking the special exception from the county.

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