The Falls Church Planning Commission voted 5 to 2 early Tuesday in favor of a proposal to allow a group home for troubled teen-age girls in a residential area, despite overwhelming opposition from the immediate neighborhood.
The recommendation to allow the home at 407 Little Falls St., an empty house owned by Shefer Schools Inc., represents the first of several hurdles surmounted for a proposal that has touched a highly sensitive nerve in the surrounding community.
"I really am pleading to you to listen to us," said Judy Jensen to the commission. "We really don't want this in our neighborhood."
Jensen, who lives within a block of the house, was one of 150 neighbors to sign a petition against the proposal. Jensen and others said they fear a group home will bring a rise in crime and a decline in property values.
While commission members said they were sensitive to neighbors' concerns, a majority of members also said the apparent need for the program persuaded them to vote in favor of the proposal.
According to court officials, several homes for delinquent teen-age youths are operating under the control of the juvenile court system in Northern Virginia. Only one home, in the Fair Oaks section of Fairfax County, serves girls.
Falls Church residents will no longer be eligible for the Fairfax facility Jan. 1, when Falls Church withdraws from the 19th Judicial Circuit, which includes Fairfax County and Fairfax City, and merges with Arlington in the 17th Judicial Circuit.
Falls Church's delinquent boys will be eligible to enter Arlington's Argus House, a group home for boys, and city officials are proposing that Falls Church house the delinquent girls.
Ralph B. Thomas Jr., Falls Church's Probation and Juvenile Services manager, said that in his eight years on the job, almost 30 city residents could have benefited from a girls home at one time or another.
"On balance I come out in favor of the group home," said Planning Commission member Marshall Jarrett.
"From my perspective, need was demonstrated by the city," said Planning Commission member Paul Quinn. "We have an obligation to provide the kinds of services that all our children need."
Two months ago, city officials unveiled their plan to start a residential counseling home for delinquent teen-age girls from Falls Church and Arlington at the home on Little Falls Street. Mayor Carol W. DeLong and other council members told residents the proposal was timed with the coming change in judicial districts.
The plan, as told to residents for the first time in October, was to buy and renovate the 1.2-acre property on Little Falls Street for a total cost of $740,000. If approved, the home would serve as a residential counseling center for up to 12 girls ages 13 to 17. The girls, the majority of whom would come from Arlington, would be referred to the facility by the juvenile court and would include runaways, habitual truants, abused or neglected teen-agers and delinquents convicted of minor crimes.
Officials told residents that the city would try to get financing for the project from the Virginia Department of Corrections. Such assistance would reduce local outlays to purchase and renovate the building to $320,000 and to operate it to $140,000 annually.
One major issue to emerge from two months of debate is whether a home for troubled teen-agers belongs in a residential neighborhood.
James Slattery, who lives within a block of the site and is opposed to the plan, told the commission that neither he nor other opponents are against helping juveniles. "I just don't think it should be next to any of you or next to us," he said.
But some commission members said they were persuaded by arguments from juvenile service workers that group homes are actually more effective when located in residential areas because they don't remove teen-agers from the environment they are used to.
"I think by preference it does belong in a residential area," Quinn said.
Another significant issue to emerge from the debate and one that entered into the decisions of two commission members who opposed the plan is whether the proposal was handled properly.
The plan goes before the Board of Zoning Appeals next Thursday for a special use permit. The City Council will make the final decision.