Group To Sue D.C. Over Boys Town

Posted December 12, 2003 at 2:32pm

In what could signal the final effort to halt a proposed Girls and Boys Town facility for youths on Capitol Hill, a residents’ group plans to file suit by today against the District over its decision to let the Nebraska-based nonprofit occupy four townhouses at the intersection of Potomac and Pennsylvania avenues Southeast.

Southeast Citizens for Smart Development’s latest move comes on the heels of a city zoning decision granting Boys Town a “reasonable accommodation request” to occupy the townhouses it constructed on the 1.6-acre site as a long-term residence for 24 troubled youths.

“We are challenging the reasonable accommodation decision on a number of grounds,” said SCSD attorney Andrea Ferster, adding it did “not conform with the criteria in the zoning regulations” for such a request, namely that the residents be disabled.

Ferster said that, in granting the occupation request, the District also failed to abide by a D.C. law requiring it to notify Advisory Neighborhood Commissions of significant governmental actions in their areas.

The SCSD in conjunction with ANC 6B filed an appeal Friday with the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment, claiming that David Clark, director of the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, did not have “sufficient evidence” the facility would be used for handicapped individuals to grant the request, Ferster added.

Peter Lavallee, a spokesman for the D.C. Office of the Corporation Counsel, said he could not comment on either the appeal or a potential lawsuit “except to say we’ll defend the District’s actions in any appropriate forum.”

The city is currently the subject of a Boys Town federal suit alleging it violated the Fair Housing Act — which protects handicap and racial minorities — by holding up building permits for the proposed facility.

Despite media reports indicating the Justice Department had threatened to sue the city on grounds it was in violation of the Fair Housing Act, Lavallee said pressure from the Justice Department “was not a factor” in the decision to grant Boys Town’s request. Lavallee said the city is “discussing the situation” with the Justice Department and “potentially there could be some kind of compensation” made to Boys Town, though he cautioned “it was too early to say what kind of deal would result.”

If Clark’s decision stands, it would allow the DCRA to issue certificates of occupancy once minor structural changes had been made to one of the townhouses.

“He’s violating the BZA’s own decision that the project cannot proceed as four separate houses as one facility without having a special exception,” added Ellen Opper-Weiner of SCSD, referring to an earlier BZA ruling that is being appealed by Boys Town in the D.C. Court of Appeals.

An attorney for Boys Town indicated in a Nov. 6 letter to the court that the group planned to file a motion declaring its appeal moot once the city issued certificates of occupancy.

Clark reversed his earlier decision to deny the reasonable accommodation request after Boys Town sought approval for the facility on the basis it would service handicapped youths, which would exempt it from occupation limits under zoning regulations.

A spokesman for Boys Town said he was unconcerned by SCSD’s latest effort to stop the project from moving forward.

“Those appeals are just fine,” said John Melingagio, the group’s public relations director. “They are well within their rights to do whatever they are going to do.”

When Clark’s decision — made just two days after the D.C. Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on Sept. 16 over whether Boys Town would be required to seek a special exception to occupy the homes — first became public last month, SCSD asked the mayor’s office to investigate and overturn the decision but received no response, Opper-Weiner said.

“We were never given any notice about the decision,” she added. “We only heard about [it] … through the Boys Town attorneys.”

After meeting with city officials last week regarding the decision to allow Boys Town to move forward with its proposal, D.C. Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) said the mayor was unlikely to overrule Clark’s decision.

“This city, like many other cities, has reached an agreement with the Department of Justice in respect to Fair Housing Act requests in respect to reasonable accommodation and that is what this decision is based on — end of story,” she said, adding that the Corporation Counsel advised it would be unwise to reverse the decision.

Ambrose may introduce legislation in the city council that would alter or add notice provisions for similar projects in the future.