When Merrifield and Falls Church residents heard the City of Fairfax was putting up $2.6 million to buy a new home for the Lamb Center in their neighborhood, they united in opposition to tell the city to look elsewhere.
After listening to more than two hours of public input at the Tuesday, Dec. 12 City Council meeting, most of which came from at least 40 Merrifield residents opposing the relocation, the City Council voted unanimously to appropriate $2.6 million to purchase the building at 2924 Telestar Court, in the Merrifield area of Fairfax County. The city is putting up the money until the Lamb Center completes its incorporation process and can purchase the property back in the near future. If that doesn’t happen in time, the city would sell the property and would not lose any money from the deal, said City Manager Bob Sisson.
“This is one the city has been struggling with for years, with no help from anybody,” said Councilmember Scott Silverthorne, a few days before the Dec. 12 City Council meeting. “Our goal is not to own this for very long, one way or another.”
FOR THE CONCERNED Merrifield residents, the process has only just begun, said Mayor Robert Lederer. From here, the city has to file a special exception application with the Fairfax County Planning Commission since the building is in a commercially zoned area that is one of seven commercial revitalization districts in the county. The Planning Commission would conduct another public hearing before making a non-binding recommendation to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, where yet another public hearing would have to occur.
“We’re six square miles; this is a regional issue,” said Lederer. “The concept that somehow the City of Fairfax is somehow dumping our problem into another community quite frankly just isn’t factual.”
The Lamb Center, a day shelter facility that provides food, mental health services and job skills to the homeless or needy, has been trying to relocate for years. The current location, next to the 7-Eleven on Fairfax Circle, has been dealing with overcrowding issues and limitations to its services because only so much can be done in a 4,000-square foot building, said Bob Wyatt, the Lamb Center’s executive director.
Lederer said the center experienced an overwhelming influx of guests when the county chose to make it a pick-up and drop-off point for its four-month hypothermia shelter program last year. Before the county did that, the Lamb Center didn’t experience significant overcrowding or crime issues, said Lederer. That’s what triggered the need for a larger location, he said.
Ekrem Sarper, a count resident who lives near the proposed location in on Telestar Court, helped form the Merrifield Citizens Association in response to this issue. In the 12 days before the Dec. 12 public hearing, the association has mobilized and put together a petition with more than 700 signatures opposing the Lamb Center move to their neighborhood. The association cites unacceptable crime rates that they say are directly related to the Lamb Center and the proximity of schools, liquor stores and residential neighborhoods as reasons why the relocation is inappropriate for Telestar Court.
“We fully understand the Lamb Center and the good that they’re doing for the people they’re helping,” said Sarper. “We want them to relocate to a more appropriate location.”
The Merrifield citizens also question the amount in which the city has offered for the property, citing the property’s assessed value at $1.4 million—about 75 percent less than the $2.6 million the city is paying. Assessed values and market values are two totally different ballparks, said Lederer. The property was on the market for that amount, and other offers were being “entertained at that level,” said Sisson.
“If my property was worth 75 percent more than its tax value, I would have sold a long time ago,” said Sarper.
“My understanding is that we’re paying fair market value,” said Silverthorne.
THE CITY HAS been trying to help the center find a new location for more than a year, said Wyatt. They entertained the options of moving it to several locations within city limits, but to no avail.
“We looked in the city first, then we looked in the county. For one reason or another, it didn’t work out,” said Sisson. “Homelessness is a regional problem; it’s not about being in one jurisdiction or another, although we would have preferred it be in city.”
But Wyatt said that other elements surrounding the current location bring in a larger homeless population than the center can handle, in addition to the problem created with the hypothermia program last year. He pointed to nearby motels where many Lamb Center guests have “buddies,” he said. Also, no common, private area exists where the guests can gather outside to get some fresh air or have a cigarette. Currently, the guests can only step out in front of the building, which is on a busy street and next door to a 7-Eleven that sells alcohol.
But Sarper said the same undesirable conditions that exist in Fairfax Circle— the 7-Eleven, schools and residential areas nearby— exist at more concerning levels at the new location. “You’re offering the temptation there,” said Sarper.
The ABC store that Merrifield citizens cite as a concern is two blocks away from Telestar Court — a distance Wyatt said is not nearly as concerning as the adjacent 7-Eleven at the current location.
The guests that the Lamb Center turns away — people who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs — won’t show up in Merrifield, said Wyatt. When guests are turned away because of drugs or alcohol, they go back to that network where they obtained those substances, he said. Those are the people who aren’t interested in a hot meal, a shower or a job, he said.
“Jesus always gave people options; that’s what we do,” said Wyatt. “If you want to be helped, then here are the rules in which we operate.”
Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence), who represents the Merrifield area on the Board of Supervisors, said she wouldn’t take a position on the issue until after the special exception process plays out. At this point, she calls it “a land-use issue.”