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City Cancels Lamb Center Deal

City Council moves to stop purchase agreement for proposed Lamb Center relocation site in Merrifield.

The Merrifield Citizens Association has spoken out and won: the City of Fairfax is terminating the purchase agreement for a $2.6 million property on Telestar Court in Merrifield that would have been the Lamb Center’s new home.

“For any of these facilities to work, it requires community buy-in,” said Mayor Robert Lederer, at the end of the Tuesday, Jan. 9, City Council meeting. “And, as that process unfolds, it’s fairly clear and obvious to us that for a variety of reasons … Telestar does not appear that it’s going to work out.”

Negotiations over the property, at 2924 Telestar Court, began discreetly last fall. City Council met with staff to discuss whether the location would have been a good prospect to house the Lamb Center, a homeless day shelter that provides meals, job training and spiritual guidance.

The city decided to put up $2.6 million to purchase the property, until the center could incorporate as a nonprofit organization and buy it back. When Merrifield residents heard about it, they united to stop what they say was a city desperate to dump its problem elsewhere — an accusation city officials have continuously denied.

“We’re just very upset that they chose to deceive people,” said Ekrem Sarper, president of the Merrifield Citizens Association, a group that mobilized to oppose the Lamb Center’s relocation to Telestar Court.

Merrifield residents immediately became suspicious as to why the city would be so generous with its money just to move the Lamb Center. Sarper accessed e-mail exchanges between council members last year through the state’s Freedom of Information Act. In the 1,300 pages of e-mails and city documents obtained, several council members expressed a strong desire to quickly move the Lamb Center out of its current location on Fairfax Circle.

“We’re just trying to share the facts,” said Sarper.

Those e-mails were taken out of context though, said Lederer. Many of the e-mails were dated between February and April 2006 — the same time that the county’s hypothermia shelter program chose the Lamb Center as a pick-up and drop-off point for its busses. The hypothermia program, not the Lamb Center, is what Lederer said he and his colleagues were so urgently trying to move out of the city. A spike in crime also occurred around that time, which Bob Wyatt, executive director of the Lamb Center, attributes to the hypothermia guests that were being bussed into the city.

“The vast majority of the police reports and the majority of those e-mails were regarding the situation that was created as a result of the hypothermia program,” said Lederer. “They are two separate programs; two separate challenges.”

But some of the e-mail exchanges that expressed a desire to relocate the Lamb Center to somewhere outside of the city were dated more than six months after the hypothermia shelter crisis last March. About two months after the hypothermia program overcrowded the Lamb Center, causing it to shut down for a couple of days, Rick Rappoport, the city’s police chief, sent an e-mail to City Councilmembers stating that the department responds to calls “all over the city who have some connection to the Lamb Center.”

Sarper said the city conveniently omitted these crime statistics when they tried to gain support from the Merrifield residents who would have to live and work near the new center. They tried to give the impression that the center has always peacefully coexisted with the city, said Sarper.

“They chose to basically mislead the county,” he said. “Crime adds an entirely different dimension.”

THE DECISION to discontinue the purchase agreement for Telestar Court does not mean the city won’t look elsewhere and continue to facilitate the process to move the center, said Lederer. The process has simply reached a new starting point, and the city plans to work with the county and local churches to “find a regional solution.”

Truro Church in Fairfax, along with about 30 other local churches, operates and funds the Lamb Center. Truro recently split from the Episcopal Church of the United States and is going through a property dispute with the Diocese of Virginia, so a $2.6 million purchase for one of its outreach programs was not in the cards.

According to the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the city’s role in funding the relocation of the church-run Lamb Center is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — the separation of church and state. An attorney for the group sent the city a letter Dec. 11, just one day before the council voted to appropriate the money to move forward with the purchase agreement. City Attorney Brian Lubkeman had no comment on whether the group’s accusations have any merit.

IN OTHER COUNCIL news, the proposed ball fields for Stafford Drive are now in the financing stages, after several years of planning and back-and-forth. Bob Sisson, city manager, said staff now has the direction it needs to get started. A formal vote on a financing option will happen at a City Council meeting and public hearing in the near future.

City Council also approved a request to the General Assembly to amend a section of the City Charter to allow the use of photo-monitoring systems to enforce traffic lights. The city’s authority to use such systems expired July 1, 2005, and the General Assembly denied legislation last session that would have allowed jurisdictions to reinstate the photo monitoring. Del. David Bulova (D-41) suggested that staff adjust its approach by requesting that the General Assembly enact a charter amendment instead.

“I just hope that through creative information that we can supply members of the General Assembly, and others, that this is a program that can be revived,” said City Councilmember Scott Silverthorne.