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Great Falls group home wins latest round of zoning battle

Neighbors contend owner is not abiding by rules in place
© Abode Stock/Artur Szczybylo

The Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) on Jan. 31 voted 5-0 to uphold the zoning administrator’s determination that a Great Falls group facility is a by-right use.

A Mission for Michael, which operates out of a two-story house on Kellie Jean Court, was licensed as a mental-health group home on April 19 last year by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services (VDBHDS).

Neighbors Yan and Mindy Cheng on May 12 last year appealed the Fairfax County Ordinance Administration Section’s April 13 ruling that A Mission for Michael is a group residential facility permitted by-right in a single-family detached dwelling.

The county’s ruling came after the Virginia Supreme Court voided Fairfax County’s Zoning Ordinance Modernization Project (aka zMOD), and so fell under the earlier 1978 zoning ordinance. County supervisors later re-approved zMOD, but some zoning cases had to be reheard.

The facility serves up to eight people, ages 18 to 65, who are undergoing treatment for depressive, anxiety and mood disorders. Clients stay an average of 45 days, or 15 more than Fairfax County’s maximum for transient occupancy.

The Jan. 31 public hearing was the BZA’s second on the matter. The first occurred Nov. 15 last year, when board members heard from plenty of annoyed neighbors, but not from representatives of A Mission for Michael.

Board members compelled testimony from the latter this time around.

BZA Vice Chairman James Hart inquired whether the facility did background checks on its clients to see if they were under court orders or legal conditions. Zoning staff said while VDBHDS may have such requirements, but it is not a zoning matter.

Facility personnel do not check courthouse records for each admission, said Ted Guastello, CEO of A Mission for Michael.

“We do a rigorous clinical-eligibility screening process prior to admission,” he said. “That means a comprehensive, multi-dimensional assessment, including consideration of any relevant collateral information, to make sure that we’re the right type of care for the right person.”

The facility will discharge patients for a higher level of care if they exhibit signs of substance-abuse disorder; this happens in about 1 to 2 percent of cases, he said.

A Mission for Michael executes admission agreements with clients and offers a clinical curriculum that typically necessitates a stay of 45 to 60 days, although some exceed 90 days, Guastello said.

Clients generally are not allowed to leave the facility or see friends, except in rare circumstances when it might be considered therapeutically appropriate. Clients can end admissions agreements and depart whenever they wish.

“We are not a locked facility,” Guastello said.

A Mission for Michael locates its facilities in residential neighborhoods to provide a more intimate setting, Guastello said. The Great Falls facility usually has two direct-care staff members who are awake at the site around the clock and that number can rise to five around midday, he said.

Opponents kept pressing their case.

“The facility is not operating as a group home,” said Mara Hurwitt, who lives in Fairfax Station. “It is, in fact, a medical-care facility” under the Virginia code’s definition, based upon the site’s reimbursement by third-party health-insurance programs.

Dr. Deborah Hanchar, who lives across the street from the facility, said in November that the home was exceeding its permitted number of vehicles.

“This is not a real residence,” Hanchar said. “No one actually lives there. The clients are temporary, the employees are transient, so why would these people behave like a true neighbor?”

Such facilities should be located in more sparsely populated areas, given their leaders’ unwillingness to be part of a neighborhood, Hanchar said.

“They demand to be let in, but they don’t want to fit in,” she said.