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Votes

Family Shelter to be Built Locally

Fairfax County may seem like the land of plenty for those who have plenty. But for people teetering on the edge of solvency, a serious illness or a lost job can render them homeless.

Most of them are single mothers with young children — and many are from Centreville, Chantilly and Fairfax City. But as things stand now, they have no place to go except to often unsavory motels.

The three existing family shelters are in the northern, southern and eastern parts of the county — and 50-60 families are on the waiting list, at all times. But that situation is about to change.

The county Planning Commission last Thursday, Feb. 19, paved the way for a fourth shelter — serving western Fairfax County — to be built here. Planning Commission Chairman Pete Murphy (Springfield District) recommended approval, and Sully District Planning Commissioner Ron Koch seconded it.

"This will be heaven-sent for the people living there," said Koch. "There'll be space for classes and activities, and it'll be much safer for them than at a motel."

The 20,000-square-foot shelter will be between the Hampton Forest and Stringfellow Road intersections on Route 29, just west of Meadows Farms Nursery. It will house up to 20 families and predominantly serve single parents with children — mainly in elementary school or younger.

Entry to the 5.7-acre site will be via a service-road stub coming from the adjacent Estates of Fairfax subdivision, being built by Equity Homes. A modified traffic signal is planned for Hampton Forest Road.

The shelter will be mostly two stories and have a residential appearance. Also planned are some 50 parking spaces, an outdoor playground and a multi-use court. And the county already has the $5 million it needs to construct these elements.

Phase two — a pair of two-story, transitional housing units, each 3,000 square feet and serving three families — is not yet funded. These buildings will have shingle roofs and siding with brick accents to fit in with nearby homes.

THE SHELTER will have a maximum of 17 daytime staff members, plus four volunteers. Kathy Froyd, with the county's Department of Family Services, said the average shelter family consists of 3.5 people who usually stay for 90 days. She said about 1/3 are employed when they enter, and the rest seek jobs to become self-sufficient.

"We were really glad to receive the support from the Planning Commission," she said. The commissioners gave us some excellent suggestions and feedback during the process. They really understood the needs of families here, and several of them spoke quite eloquently about it."

Shelters are supervised at all times, and advisory boards including area residents help guide operations. There's a curfew, and counseling and service-referral are provided, plus meals and clothing.

Fairfax County wanted to open a shelter in this area, for years. Nonetheless, at countless public hearings and meetings, this issue became a classic case of NIMBY-ism, with many residents saying, "I agree, another shelter is needed, but not in my backyard."

As a result, it's been a long and contentious battle, but the Planning Commission had the final say. "I felt bad that so many people opposed it," said Koch. "But after it opens, I'm sure they'll find there's no problem with it and that it's a well-run shelter."

He stressed that people couldn't just come off the street and expect to stay there; they must be referred by the county. And At-Large Planning Commissioner Walter Alcorn said he lived next door to the Embrey Rucker Shelter in Reston, for a long time, and things were fine.

Some 35 people spoke at the Planning Commission's Feb. 12 public hearing, and more opposed than favored the plan. But Koch doesn't believe they're giving the future shelter occupants a fair shake. Through his volunteer work with FACETS (Fairfax Area Christian Emergency Transitional Services), he said, "I've been exposed to a lot of these kids — and they're good kids."

THE SHELTER application was a 2232, meaning it's decided by the Planning Commission — not on emotional arguments — but on the basis of three criteria: location, character and extent.

As for location, said Murphy, "The citizens requested we put it on county property, it's well-buffered and will have good access. There'll be no additional curb-cut from Route 29 — one will serve both the shelter and the Equity Homes community."

He also emphasized that it's in conformance with the county's Comprehensive Plan, even though the word "shelter" wasn't designated for this, particular location. More importantly, he said, it complies with the county's policy plan calling for institutional uses such as this shelter.

"When we do our public facilities, very rarely is it specifically worded [for them] in the Comprehensive Plan," explained Murphy. "That's how we put in many of our schools and fire stations."

This way, area residents got to weigh in on the issue. But, he added, "If, in fact, the Comprehensive Plan did say 'Put a shelter here,' it would have been [listed as] a 'feature shown' on the site and wouldn't have required a public hearing."

Regarding character, he said the shelter's an institutional use, residential in nature, so it's compatible with the surrounding developments. As for extent — how it affects the local community — Murphy said, "I don't think it'll have any adverse effect on [it] — this is not a penal community."

He said the project's been in the works for a long time and the county "made every effort" to make sure every homeowners and civic association in the area knew about it and the Feb. 12 public hearing.

The issue also went before the Springfield District/Fairfax Center Land-Use Committee, the West Fairfax County Citizens Association (WFCCA) Land-Use Committee and the Sully District Council of Citizens Associations. And, said Murphy, "All three voted to support it."

Even though a good percentage of the shelter occupants will have their own automobiles, he said, "I wanted us to have a more-than-adequate transportation program to take them to and from daycare, jobs, shopping, etc. So there'll be a free county van and driver dedicated to that site."

MURPHY SAID the van would make four or five trips in the morning, four or five in the evening and three during the day. That way, for example, a shelter mom could take her children to daycare and then go to a Metro site to go to a job.

Carey Needham, chief of the Building Design branch of the county's Department of Public Works, says it'll be a Department of Family Services van. It's generally anticipated to run, Monday-Friday, from 6 a.m.-8:30 p.m., and Saturday-Sunday, as necessary, to meet the needs of whoever's staying in the shelter at the time.

"And after a year in existence, I've asked the county to evaluate the transportation plan," said Murphy. "If it's not adequate, we'll add another van." Besides, he added, "We're really optimistic that, in the not-to-distant future, we'll be able to greatly improve Connector bus service along the Route 29 Corridor."

The new shelter will also generate the construction of two missing segments of the countywide trail system here. They'll run from the shelter to Stringfellow Road — where shelter residents can catch a Fairfax Connector bus to shopping centers, hospitals and jobs.

"We're still trying to get funding for the two sections of 8-foot, asphalt trail," said Needham, who said they'd probably take six to eight weeks to construct. "The estimated cost is $155,000, and this amount wasn't included in the original project budget. But we'll work on the design as we continue to work on getting the funding, and I'm confident we'll find the money as soon as possible."

Murphy said the Planning Commission incorporated a WFCCA recommendation about the fence to be built between the shelter and the neighboring Estates of Fairfax subdivision. "The county planned a black-mesh, chain-link fence," he said. "But WFCCA recommended a board-on-board fence to give the site an even-more residential-looking appearance."

NEXT STEP is to develop site and building plans and obtain county permits, said Needham. "We're at the initial stages of starting the more detailed design work with the architect, Wisnewski, Blair & Associates of Alexandria," he said. He expects bids for construction to be advertised by this spring.

"Once we have more information on the building design and site layout, we'll get community feedback from the surrounding homeowners," said Needham. "Late in spring 2005, we hope to be able to start construction. It'll take about 14 months or so to build."

Meanwhile, there's other work to be done. "There are a lot of misperceptions out there," said Kathy Froyd, with the county's Department of Family Services. "So we'll continue to go out into the community, share information and engage [residents] in the process [via] community meetings and by seeking their input as we move ahead with the shelter planning."

She, too, is pleased that the new shelter will reduce the number of "high-risk families" currently staying in motels. Said Froyd: "That's such an unsafe environment for mothers and young children, and it's not conducive to good, family life."