- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

A federal court criticized the D.C. government yesterday for blocking construction of four group homes for disabled children.

The city sided with community opponents in denying building permits for the homes to be built in the 1300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE.

Boys Town of Washington dropped its plans for the tax-funded homes in 2004 as opposition grew from local community groups.

However, the federal government took up Boys Towns’ cause by suing the D.C. government.

The Justice Department lawsuit accused the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) of violating the Fair Housing Act by denying building permits for the four homes, each of which would house six children and a married couple of supervisors.

The lawsuit sought a court order that would have required rewriting nine of the DCRA’s regulations on housing for the disabled.

The DCRA was imposing regulations more stringently on the children’s group homes than for the general population in an apparent attempt to keep the Boys Town houses out of the neighborhood, the Justice Department argued.

Boys Town sought the building permits under an exception to the D.C. code that says special authorization is not needed for a group home if it houses six or fewer residents. The nonprofit group already operates a home for boys and girls under 18 at 4801 Sargent Road NE. It obtained permits for the houses on the site with little community or District opposition.

The DCRA issued four permits for the buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue on Sept. 6, 2001, but community activists appealed.

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B and a group of residents called Southeast Citizens for Smart Development said the group housing complex would disrupt the community, potentially bringing in more traffic and risking crime against the disabled children.

“It was not the appropriate place for that project,” said Ellen Opper-Weiner, co-chairman of Southeast Citizens for Smart Development.

Their attorney, Andrea Ferster, argued in the appeal that although the children would be housed in four buildings, they would be linked in a single complex. As a result, the complex surpassed the occupancy limit to avoid special-exception permits.

“It’s a manipulation of the rules,” Ms. Ferster said yesterday. “If you allow any large facility to evade the special exception rules, then you’ve opened the door for any large facility to be built.”

She said the fact the Boys Town facility would house disabled children was not the issue.

“Size matters in residential neighborhoods,” Ms. Ferster said.

The District’s Board of Zoning Adjustments agreed, saying the houses on Pennsylvania Avenue still would need to meet the District’s “youth residential care home” special permit standards. The standards cover issues such as licensing, parking and potential disruption to the neighborhood.

After Boys Town dropped its planned group home, the Justice Department sued on April 15, 2004, in U.S. District Court.

The court agreed this week that the D.C. government violated the Fair Housing Act but refused to grant the sweeping changes to D.C.’s housing regulations sought in the lawsuit.

Instead, the court issued a ruling that prohibits “the District from violating the Fair Housing Act’s requirement that the disabled be provided equal access to housing through reasonable accommodations.”

The Justice Department argued that nine zoning regulations gave unfair preference to housing for persons without disabilities “without sufficient justification.”

The ruling by U.S. District Judge James Robertson rejected that argument, saying, “Such facts must be proven on a case-by-case basis rather than assumed across the board.”

A condominium now stands on the site where Boys Town planned to build its group homes.

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