- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

D.C. zoning officials yesterday reversed themselves and stripped Girls and Boys Town of permits to build a complex of group homes on Capitol Hill, leaving the charity with a new $3 million facility it won't be allowed to use.
"This decision exemplifies the continuing mistreatment and discrimination that the D.C. government has inflicted upon the children of the District who are in desperate need of help, healing and hope," said the Rev. Val J. Peter, executive director of Girls and Boys Town.
The charity will appeal the decision.
Nearly a year ago, zoning officials approved the Nebraska-based charity's construction of four group homes for troubled youth on a 1.6 acre lot at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE, which charity sources say has cost more than $3 million and is nearly completed.
Since first learning of Girls and Boys Town's plans more than a year ago, a group of Capitol Hill residents have fought to halt construction of the homes, which would house 24 troubled youths. Critics of the plans which included D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat said the neighborhood is too fragile to support the group home and noted the area's open-air drug markets.
The residents, represented by Southeast Citizens for Smart Development (SCSD), appealed to the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustments to revoke building permits granted in September to Girls and Boys Town, saying the permits violate a law barring community-based residential facilities from being built within 500 feet of existing ones.
The zoning board yesterday granted the appeal, effectively setting up a roadblock that requires Girls and Boys Town to apply for a "special exception" building permit if the charity wants to continue.
The special permit requires a public comment period and more zoning hearings.
"A special-exception hearing would allow both sides a forum to voice their case," zoning board member David Levy said before the board voted for the appeal.
Representatives of Girls and Boys Town 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 backyard] gone too far."
"The Board of Zoning Adjustment's decision flies in the face of crystal-clear law allowing Girls and Boys Town to build on our property," Father Peter said in a statement yesterday.
Father Peter said he will pursue "all available legal remedies" to ensure the homes open in Southeast.
"This was a minor skirmish in a major war," said Michael McGill, general counsel for Girls and Boys Town. "We will appeal the decision, and plan to win the war."
Capitol Hill residents yesterday said they feel as if they have won more than a battle.
"I feel great," said Wilbert Hill, an advisory neighborhood commissioner.
"We've spent close to $25,000 on this appeal," said SCSD spokeswoman Ellen Opper-Weiner. "Apparently it wasn't frivolous."
Mrs. Opper-Weiner said the group will hold a June 2 "cook-off" to raise money, and neighbors then will organize plans to prevent attempts by Girls and Boys Town to complete the group homes.
At a February zoning-board hearing, SCSD attorney Andrea Ferster said the neighborhood's opposition to the group homes wasn't a NIMBY issue. She said Girls and Boys Town was trying to mislead the neighborhood 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.
"Our appeal is a legal argument," Miss Ferster said. "It's a question about whether a development is going to evade plain and existing zoning principles."
In 1999, Girls and Boys Town received $7.1 million in the D.C. appropriations bill to develop small group homes in neighborhoods. The charity has said the money is "still sitting around" to be spent on troubled youth in the District.
Representatives say money from a real estate sale in Nebraska is covering the cost of building the group homes and already covered the $8.2 million cost of the land.
Residents say the land is worth two to three times that amount.
Originally named Boys Town, Girls and Boys Town was founded in 1917 when the Rev. Edward J. Flanagan opened a home for orphaned and troubled boys in Omaha, Neb. His outreach program for troubled young men, and eventually young women, has since become a multimillion-dollar national operation.
Girls and Boys Town operates shelters and residential facilities in 13 states and the District, and served more than 37,000 children in 2001. Private donors from across the United States subsidize the cost of caring for D.C. children who live at the group's residential home and shelter on Sargent Road NE.
Representatives say the new group-home complex will provide surrogate families for the youths, headed by married couples and assistants who live in the homes and work for Girls and Boys Town full time. Most of the children in the homes would be from Wards 6, 7 and 8, and would attend neighborhood schools.


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