A lawsuit alleging that the Alexandria city government secretly decided a land-use issue is on its way to trial in December — pitting advocates of proposed apartments for homeless people against some neighbors of the proposed location who say that the zoning process was intentionally rigged to avoid public scrutiny. The proposed center, known as Safe Haven, would provide three apartments with 11 bedrooms for 12 homeless people with mental illness, substance-abuse problems or other disabling conditions at 115 North Patrick St. Under the proposal, the Alexandria Community Services Board would oversee the apartments under the direction of the city’s Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse.
“We’re not against Safe Haven,” said Craig Miller, a Cameron Street homeowner who filed a lawsuit challenging the proposal in January. “It’s the process that we’re objecting to.”
Michael Gilmore, executive director of the Community Services Board, said that finding a location for group homes and apartments for those afflicted with mental illness is always difficult. He said Miller’s complaint is a veiled attempt to oppose the Safe Haven project, which he said will make the neighborhood safer by providing guidance and support for people who have serious mental disabilities.
“These people are already in the community — some of them are sleeping under your car,” Gilmore said. “The Safe Haven program is a way to fill a gap in the array of services already offered by the city by providing permanent housing to people whose mental illnesses prevent them from being eligible for other services.”
MILLER’S LAWSUIT alleges that the city wrongly designated the project as a “multi-family residential use” zoning designation to purposely avoid the public scrutiny associated with the city’s permitting process. The suit that the city should have designated it as “congregate housing,” a designation that would require a special-use permit and a public hearing for neighbors to voice their opinion on the proposal.
“Planning for the Safe Haven project continued within the confines of the Alexandria city government in a concealed manner that did not inform the public, and in fact, sought to avoid public input and scrutiny,” Miller’s complaint states. “The CSB sought to conceal from the public its true intentions for the 115 North Patrick site for as long as possible, with full knowledge of the likelihood of strong public opposition given full and fair disclosure.”
The city’s lawyers protested the timing of Miller’s lawsuit, saying that he did not file an appeal within 30 days of public notification that the City Council would be applying for a federal grant to fund the apartments. But in a hearing in circuit court last week, Judge Lisa Kemler ruled that the city never gave adequate notice of the project or its neighbors’ right to appeal.
“There was no administrative remedy to exhaust,” Kelmer said. “I don’t think there was anything the plaintiff could appeal.”
KEMLER’S RULING clears the way for a trial on Miller’s lawsuit, an emotionally charged issue for many residents who live near the proposed site of the Safe Haven apartments. Some oppose its location in their neighborhood while others support it. For the city’s lawyers, the key issue in defending against Miller’s lawsuit will be defending the zoning designation of Safe Haven as a “multi-family” as opposed to a “congregate housing” use.
According to the city’s zoning ordinance, “multi-family” housing is defined as “a building or portion thereof containing three or more dwelling units, located on a single lot or parcel of ground. “Congregate housing,” on the other hand, is defined as “a structure other than a single-family dwelling where unrelated persons reside under supervision or 24 hour on-site management and may receive special care, treatment or training on a temporary or permanent basis.” The “congregate housing” designation would force the Community Services Board to get a special-use permit and hold a public hearing on the matter — a process that city leaders say has never been used for any project.
“When the Planning and Zoning people took a look at the program, they came to the conclusion that this is a multi-family project,” said City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa. “That decision was based on the kind of services that were provided on site.”
According to the proposal by the Community Services Board, residents at Safe Haven will have to go to other service centers to get counseling or medical treatment. Although staff members located at the apartment building will be specially trained to deal with mental illness, city officials say that they will not be providing the kind of continuous care that would trigger a congregate housing designation. As a result, they say, the Safe Haven program does not fit within the definition of congregate housing spelled out in the city’s zoning ordinance.
“I live in a condominium where the building provides services,” Gilmore said. “But nobody would suggest that it is congregate housing. We are talking about an apartment building, not a 24-hour service center.”
But David Hudgins, Miller’s lawyer, disagrees with the city’s assessment of the level of services that will be provided. He says that the nature of the project is to provide round-the-clock care for its residents — a level of service that would trigger the “congregate housing” designation and the public scrutiny associated with the special-use permitting process that would inevitably follow.
“Alexandria should not be run by a secret government,” Hudgins said. “Ultimately, we want the city to do what it should have done in the first place and hold a public hearing on this.”
THE DISPUTE about the Safe Haven apartments erupted earlier this year when several residents who live near the proposed location appeared at a Jan. 21 public hearing to oppose alterations of the building at 115 North Patrick St. At an emotionally charged forum, several neighbors objected to the Safe Haven project even though City Council’s decision was limited to the architectural changes that were being made to transform the building into an apartment house. In the end, City Council approved the renovations and the project moved forward.
“The people we are talking about are citizens of Alexandria,” said Mayor Bill Euille after the vote. “We have a responsibility to house them and take care of them.”
That same month, Miller brought his lawsuit against the city challenging the zoning designation. Soon afterward, he launched a Republican campaign for City Council. In candidate forums, he often railed against the city’s leadership and its decision-making processes. During one forum at the Departmental Progressive Club, Miller accused incumbent City Council members of polarizing the community and demagoguing issues — adding that some council members were in government for “personal gain.”
“I would bring a level of civility to the City Council,” Miller said at the April forum.
Councilman Ludwig Gaines took the microphone to say that he was not in politics for personal gain, and that he was concerned about all city residents — especially homeless people who have recurring problems with substance abuse and mental illness.
“I won’t try to sue the city if they want to move next door,” Gaines said, prompting applause from the crowd.
After the forum, Miller insisted that he does not oppose the Safe Haven proposal. Again, he reiterated that he objected to the process that prohibited public input.
“I’ll get my day in court,” he said. “And if I’m wrong, I’m wrong.”
THE FAIR HOUSING ACT could be an important guiding force in the future of the Safe Haven debate. Passed by Congress in 1968, it prevents discrimination in housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex. The act was later amended to include disability or family status. As a result, the city may be in violation if it took action against Safe Haven that wouldn’t be taken against a mainstream apartment building at the North Patrick Street location.
“It’s proscriptive,” said Bryan Greene, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development assistant secretary for fair housing. “It’s all phrased in ‘thou shall not.’”
Greene said that any city or municipality that was found to be in violation of the Fair Housing Act could be subject to prosecution. One example, he said, is the 1995 Supreme Court case City of Edmonds (Wash.) versus Oxford House. In that case, the court ruled that the city could not discriminate against a group home for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.
“As for a potential public hearing, people can say whatever they want,” Greene said. “But it’s the city government that would be held responsible for discrimination.”