A group of South Arlington civic association leaders wants an outside mediator to settle a bitter controversy over whether to build a county-proposed drug treatment center and homeless shelter and where to put it.

About a dozen South Arlington civic association leaders met Tuesday night to discuss the issue. Their position adds a new element to what has been one of the most acrimonious civic disputes in Arlington's recent history.

In addition to requesting a mediator, civic leaders said they plan to ask the County Board for a cooling-off period in which the need for the facility will be reexamined. They also want county officials to postpone a Nov. 13 public hearing on the issue, according to several people who attended the meeting.

The public hearing has been scheduled by a citizen panel appointed by County Manager Anton S. Gardner to study the proposal and make a recommendation.

The citizen panel is "going around in circles," said Mary S. Dabinett, president of the Arlington Ridge Civic Association. It's "going no place; it's an exercise in futility . . . . I don't think a public hearing is going to solve any problem."

The County Board, which so far has sat on the sidelines as the facility has been heatedly debated for five months, should move more quickly to decide the issue, said Mike Hathaway, president of the Central Arlington Civic Association.

"The answers people want . . . need to come from people in a position to say," said Hathaway. The citizen panel "is only advisory to an appointed official," he added.

County Board Chairman Albert C. Eisenberg said it would be premature for the board to step into the controversy. "We're being asked to short-circuit a deliberative study process," he said. "We would be guilty of a rush to judgment" if the board stepped in.

The conclusions of the citizen panel would be given to the county manager, who would issue a report and proposal to be heard by the Planning Commission and then the County Board. "It's an open process," said Eisenberg, adding that his mind is not made up.

"I have lots of questions," he said.

The original proposal, made last spring, was for a 130-bed center to include a homeless shelter, a drug and alcohol treatment center and a minimum-security jail next to Barcroft Park in South Arlington.

Residents opposed to the site gathered by the hundreds to testify at community meetings.

Feelings ran high, particularly in South Arlington, where residents feel they cope with more than their share of county facilities. Arlington's wastewater plant, garbage transfer station, and a bus yard are all in the southern part of the county.

The Barcroft Park site has been dropped as a proposed location and the minimum-security jail is no longer included in plans for the center.

The panel now leans toward a single 68-bed facility for the detoxification and shelter programs. Nine sites are being considered.