- The Washington Times - Friday, May 24, 2002

A Nebraska congressman is asking a House subcommittee to take action against D.C. zoning officials who reversed themselves and stripped Girls and Boys Town of permits to build a complex of group homes for troubled youth on Capitol Hill.
The D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustments on May 8 bowed to vocal neighborhood opposition to Girls and Boys Town's construction plan, leaving the Nebraska-based charity with a nearly completed $5 million facility at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE that it won't be allowed to use.
Rep. Lee Terry, Nebraska Republican, has asked about 40 members of Congress to sign a letter of petition calling on Rep. Joe Knollenberg, chairman of the House Appropriations District of Columbia subcommittee, to recognize the "fundamental injustice" of the local zoning board's action.
"Congress has a vested interest in upholding the original building permits issued to Girls and Boys Town," states the petition, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.
In 1999, the Appropriations Committee granted Girls and Boys Town $7.1 million to develop youth group homes in D.C. neighborhoods. Nearly a year ago, zoning officials approved the organization's construction of four separate homes to house a total of 24 youths on the 1.6-acre lot in Southeast. Charity sources say more than $3 million has already been spent building the homes.
"It would be a terrible shame to waste the efforts of Congress to help troubled D.C. youth because of a misguided decision by the government's zoning board," the letter states.
Capitol Hill residents who fought to halt the construction of the homes called the letter an attempt by Boys Town to use its muscle to pressure Congress into bypassing the city's laws. D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat, came to the residents' defense, saying the issuance of building permits is "a matter of home rule."
Since first learning of the Girls and Boys Town's plans more than a year ago, Capitol Hill residents and D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose have argued the neighborhood is too fragile to support the group home and noted the area's open-air drug markets.
At a February zoning hearing, the residents argued that building permits granted to Girls and Boys Town violated a city law barring the construction of community-based residential facilities within 500 feet of existing ones.
Lawyer Andrea Ferster said Girls and Boys Town had managed to "pull the wool over the eyes" of zoning officials by calling the four group homes, which would each house six youths, separate youth facilities. Group homes with six or fewer residents can be built legally within 500 feet of existing ones.
In revoking the permits, zoning officials set up a roadblock that requires Girls and Boys Town to apply for a "special exception" permit if the charity wants to continue construction. The special permit requires a public comment period.
"The bottom line is that Boys Town did not do what they should have done in terms of working with the citizens," Mr. Williams said. "But that's all water under the bridge. The [Board of Zoning Adjustments] is acting on its authority on its best judgment, and I think the Congress should leave that alone. It's a matter of home rule."
Mrs. Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat, said, "The whole idea of Congress overturning a board of zoning appeals' decision would be the most extraordinary violation of the city's home rule that I have ever heard about."
The mayor's spokesman, Tony Bullock, joked that Girls and Boys Town will have no other choice but to go straight "to the White House or the Vatican" to circumvent city government.
Mr. Terry, the Nebraska lawmaker, said zoning officials made their ruling on "faulty logic" and SCSD's legal argument is "hollow" because Girls and Boys Town has from the beginning of the permit approval process made clear its intention to house only six youths in each group home."
Representatives of the charity founded 85 years ago by a Roman Catholic priest to provide homes for orphaned children have repeatedly said neighborhood resistance to the homes is little more than "a case of NIMBY [not in my back yard] gone too far."
The type of homes being built on Capitol Hill are representative of the "unique family-style care that has contributed to Girls and Boys Town's phenomenal 80 percent success rate at transforming the lives of abused and neglected children and teen-agers," said the Rev. Val J. Peter, executive director of Girls and Boys Town.
Mr. Terry's letter states: "The board gave in to a small but vocal neighborhood group. Against all common sense, these residents seem to believe that an organization which has for 85 years rescued hurt and troubled children from lives of desperation and despair poses a greater threat to their community than drug dealers in the streets."


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