When Craig Miller found out that a building near his Cameron Street home would soon become apartments for homeless people, he said he became concerned about the safety of his neighborhood. Known as Safe Haven, the proposed housing units would provide three apartments with 11 bedrooms for 12 homeless people with mental illness, substance-abuse problems or other disabling conditions in what had been a clubhouse for the mentally ill on Patrick Street. 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.
But something else was also bothering Miller. He said he felt officials at City Hall weren't allowing neighbors to express their opinion on the proposal. Miller and others were disappointed to learn that no public hearing would be held on the matter, which was being handled by the city's Department of Planning and Zoning and voted on by the City Council. So in January 2006 he brought a lawsuit alleging that the city improperly zoned the property to avoid public scrutiny. Then he launched a Republican campaign for City Council that played out as an extended critique of planning administrators.
"We're really getting this thing shoved down our throats," Miller said after he launched his campaign in February. "I'm not opposed to Safe Haven, but I am opposed to Safe Haven in this location."
Although he was able to win in his home precinct of City Hall, where the city's Republicans have the highest concentration of power, he failed to win a seat on the council by about 3,000 votes. And as he worked to retired a $5,000 campaign debt this summer, his lawsuit wound its way through the courts. The culmination of Miller's suit happened a few days before Christmas, when Circuit Court Judge Lisa Kemler ruled that the city had not followed its own zoning procedure by classifying the property as a “multi-family” use as opposed to a “congregate housing” use. The hearing was often combative, with Miller's lawyer accusing the city of using zoning laws to thwart democracy.
"It's sort of a fascist position," said David Hudgins, Miller’s lawyer, in describing the city's arguments. "Mr. Miller has been denied meaningful input."
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.
"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."
In the one-day trial last month, Miller's lawyer presented evidence from an expert property appraiser with unique local cache. Michael Campagna, son of Elizabeth Ann Campagna, founder of the Campagna Center.
"If people are aware of the facility, they would pay less for a house near it," said Campagna, who has been a certified real-estate assessor since 1992. "There would be a diminution of value of the property."
CAMPAGNA SAID THAT his professional opinion was that Safe Haven would decrease the value of Miller's house by 5 percent to 10 percent, an estimate he made by comparing the apartments to a fraternity house. He said that he used property values near the Carpenter’s Shelter and the Alexandria Shelter to make the determination — an evaluation that members of the Community Services Board disagree with because it neglected the many group homes in the city that have not led to a decrease in property values. Because the city assessor’s office has valued Miller's house at $1.3 million, Campagna’s estimation would reduce the value of Miller’s house anywhere from $65,000 and $130,000.
”It might take longer to find the kind of urban pioneer who wants to live in the neighborhood," said Campagna. “The issue is what people will pay for a home, not if helping the homeless is a good idea. Rightly or wrongly, this is how potential buyers will react to this.”
The proceedings took a hostile tone when Campagna was cross examined by Jim Esselman, who was one of the attorneys representing the city. Esselman and Campagna engaged in an unusual back and forth that explored the nature of the Safe Haven project and its implication. In a tense court proceeding, the witness and the attorney debated whether the project could be considered a homeless shelter.
"That's not what Safe Haven is," said Esselman. "It's not a homeless shelter."
"It shelters the homeless," said Campagna. "What would you call it?"
Ultimately, Campagna's testimony was the lynchpin for establishing that Miller had "standing," a legal term meaning that he had a right to bring the lawsuit against the city. From that point, the trial moved into a discussion on the merits of the case. Attorneys for the city defended the "multi-use" designation while Miller's lawyer argued that the city should have used the "congregate housing" classification. In the end, the judge agreed with Hudgins' arguments.
“Ultimately, we want the city to do what it should have done in the first place and hold a public hearing on this," said Hudgins.
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. But he said that it's critical to helping those in the community who need help the most.
“These people are already in the community — some of them are sleeping under your car,” said Michael Gilmore, executive director of the Community Services Board. “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.”
He said that he was “flabbergasted” when he learned of the circuit court decision, and that members of the Community Services Board and the city manager’s office will be meeting this month to discuss their options. They may decide to appeal, a move that would further delay a project that is months behind schedule. Another option is to go through the special-use permitting process, a route that Miller and other neighbors said would be a good way for their voices to finally be heard.
“I hope they don’t appeal,” said Miller. “We’ve already wasted so much money on this court case that could have gone to the homeless.”
As to the possibility of a potential special-use permitting process, Miller said he was eager to make his opinion of the project known.
“The scariest thing for me is that the proposed version has 24-hour ingress and egress,” said Miller after the trail had concluded. “I think if the Community Services Board would add a curfew, that would put a lot of people at ease.”