The old "not in my back yard" argument is back.
"Why us?" residents of an Alexandria neighborhood cried last week when they discovered the city planned to purchase a $128,000 house for chronically mentally ill adults in their neighborhood, about a mile west of the King Street Metro Station.
"In our wildest dreams, we would never have expected that the city would invade our area and damage our small community," Richard V.W. Adams, the president of the Longview Hill Citizens' Association, told the City Council in a letter circulated at Saturday's public hearing.
About 70 neighbors, fuming because a five-bedroom home at 2954 View Point Rd. might house six to eight mentally ill adults, flooded the council with memos and calls begging them not to approve a special use permit for the home.
The council, weighing the city's social obligation to the mentally ill against the strong neighborhood opposition, effectively killed the project by delaying a vote on the permit until June 25.
The postponement meant the city's purchase agreement with the seller expired. Minutes after it died, six residents bought the home.
The neighbors, pleased that mentally ill people will not be among their neighbors, all expressed a variation of the same point: "I know there's a problem, but please don't solve it in my back yard."
*Those same words surface each time a prison, juvenile center, dump site, or any necessary but so-called undesirable public facility is proposed. Residents worry -- even though there often is no data to support their fears -- that these facilities will lower property values, pose danger for children, and interrupt happy neighborhoods.
William Claiborn, executive director of the Community Mental Health and Mental Retardation Services Board, said it had been difficult to find an appropriate house in Alexandria because there are relatively few affordable five-bedroom homes. He said the city's mental health board has a caseload of more than 300 people with chronic mental illnesses, and desperately needed a long-term residential facility.
Adams said he and his wife and two other couples paid "a little bit more than the city's price" of $128,000 for the View Point home because it was the "cheapest way" out of the dispute.
Rather than engaging in a long, costly legal battle with the city or letting a group home "damage my property value," Adams said he and the others bought the house, which they plan to rent.
The Longview neighborhood just isn't the place for the mentally ill, Adams said. He suggested the city try "the run-down area in Cameron Valley."
No doubt whatever neighborhood -- probably terminate composition one linked with convenient transportion and access to the city's mental health center -- is chosen as the site of the group home, residents again will come before the council pointing to another back yard.
If the residents involved are particularly well educated, articulate, and politically savvy, as are the Longview residents, they most likely will be successful in delaying or deflecting the plan.
And if they have money, they can buy their way around the social obligation.
"Our next step is to look at alternative sites," said Judith Krasnow, the director of Alexandria's Mental Health Center. "The need doesn't go away."
According to the Virginia Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, there are only seven licensed group homes serving the states' estimated 43,000 to 61,000 chronically mentally ill.
While there are several other short-term homes and hospitals for mentally ill patients, health professionals all agree there is an urgent need for more long-term residential facilities.
"It's unfortunate that a prejudice still remains" against the mentally ill, Krasnow said. Because the View Point house has now been sold, she said that several people capable of living among the community must remain in state hospitals.
"They're [the neighbors] talking like these people are from Mars," said C. Michael Firmin, the program's director of outpatient services.
Firmin said that the neighbors' fear that the mentally ill patients would behave unpredictably and violently, is totally unfounded.
"We have made great advances in this area," he said. "These people would be on a regular treatment program and would not be allowed to live at the residence unless they were stabilized."
Proving that to the next neighborhood, however, will not be easy.