Three months after it was formed to ease residents' concerns about Arlington's most controversial plan in years, a citizens' panel examining a proposed homeless shelter and drug treatment center has won little support from neighborhood groups and become frustrated at being in the cross-fire between angry residents and county officials.
Panel members, several of whom were vocal critics of County Manager Anton S. Gardner's initial proposal last spring to put a 130-bed facility for low-risk inmates, homeless and drug and alcohol addicts near Barcroft Park, were appointed by Gardner in July to try to defuse criticism that dogged the Barcroft plan.
But even though the Barcroft site and the corrections program have been dropped from consideration and the panel is considering a smaller 68-bed center, the distrust in government the proposal created among residents, particularly in South Arlington, has continued to build as the panel has examined other sites.
Panel members, a few of them civic leaders feeling the heat from their own neighborhoods, are convinced that Arlington needs a new homeless shelter and drug treatment center.
But many residents aren't convinced, and say that those appointed to the citizens' panel have become a part of the county machinery they believe is trying to force such a facility into one or more of Arlington's neighborhoods.
The citizens' panel originally expected to make a recommendation to Gardner in September, but now it is faced with a process that several members say will probably last well into November.
The group is focusing on seven possible sites for the facility, including a two-acre tract at Columbia Pike and Washington Boulevard that is owned by the Virginia Department of Transportation and was the county staff's choice in a revised proposal to the panel.
Like other residents whose neighborhoods are being considered for the facility, those living near the state site are taking their frustrations out on the citizens' panel.
Monday night, more than 200 residents wearing bright yellow badges that said, "Not VDOT. Not Anywhere," crammed into the panel's meeting to cheer their civic leaders as they made emotional arguments against the proposal.
"This whole process is pitting neighborhood against neighborhood," civic leader Mike Hathaway said.
Hathaway said that crime involving drug addicts and the homeless is much worse than the county or the panel has led residents to believe, and he ridiculed statements by panel chairman Lutrelle Parker, who has said that many of those needing emergency shelter in the county are families and workers laid off by local businesses.
"Sixty percent of the single men in our homeless shelter have been to jail; 29 percent . . . have been to a federal penitentiary," Hathaway said. "I can't believe that the people you want to put next to my kids' school and next to my parks are going to be managers from the bank or people from Fantle's" drugstore.
The committee's frustration with the continuous criticism surfaced Monday when panel member Henry O. Lampe, president of Arlington's Chamber of Commerce, compared the group's dilemma to that faced by the deadlocked jury in D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's drug and perjury trial.
"I don't think anybody is going to accept any of this," Lampe said. "If we can't come to a conclusion, then we should resign . . . . We're not elected officials . . . . Let the county manager and the County Board hold their own hearings and take the guff."
Though other panel members aren't ready to give up, they said they were surprised Monday by the fervor of neighborhood opposition.
"I'm really disillusioned at all the NIMBYism out there," said panel member John Brannock, referring to the acronym for "Not In My Back Yard." "People need to learn the facts about this proposal . . . . Each time we have a meeting we get new people coming in, and it's like starting from scratch. I don't think any of us realized it would be taking this much time."