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Neighbors, Board of Zoning Appeals irked by group home's leadership

Zoning panel demands that leaders of facility show up for January meeting

A Great Falls group home has drawn the ire of neighbors who say the facility offers services exceeding those approved by the Fairfax County government and lets its charges wander around the vicinity.

Lacking testimony from facility officials at its Nov. 15 hearing, the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals set a new public hearing for Jan. 31 next year, but demanded a representative of the group home be present.

Great Falls residents Yan and Mindy Cheng on May 12 appealed the Fairfax County Ordinance Administration Section’s April 13 use-determination ruling that A Mission for Michael (AMFM) is a group residential facility allowed by-right in a single-family detached dwelling.

A Mission for Michael, located at 11301 Kellie Jean Court in a two-story home built in 2000, on April 19 was licensed as a mental-health group home by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services (VDBHDS). The facility serves eight people, ages 18 to 65, who are being treated for depressive, anxiety and mood disorders.

Shift workers supervise the residents around the clock and clients stay an average of 45 days, which is 15 more than the county’s maximum for transient occupancy, county officials said.

The facility provides group, individual and family therapy; psychiatric care; recreational and nutritional services; cognitive rehabilitation; vocational-skills training; rehabilitative interventions; and interpersonal-skills development.

It does not offer services for substance-abuse disorders, said Sara Morgan, a deputy zoning administrator with the Zoning Administration Division.

“Any resident found to be in possession of or actively using illegal drugs or alcohol or a controlled substance would be immediately discharged from the facility,” she said. “Additionally, anyone who is found to be using drugs or alcohol, or if they’ve provided that to another resident, they would not be eligible for readmission to the facility.”

But the Chengs assert that people with substance-abuse disorders will be treated at the facility. They cited job advertisements from a Vienna facility operated by the company, as well as A Mission for Michael’s Web page, which according to the appellants states the facility will treat co-occurring disorders and dual diagnoses.

The National Institute for Mental Health defines “co-occurring disorders” as ones where people are being treated for substance-abuse and mental-health disorders.

According to the appellants, the facility is a commercial operation and does not have permanent occupancy. Instead, it instead should be designated a congregate-living or medical-care facility, which requires a special exception in the RE residential zone, they said.

But nothing in the Fair Housing Act, state code or county zoning ordinance limit the property’s use to non-profit or charitable entities, Morgan said.

The zoning administrator’s decision was based on the 1978 county code, which allowed such facilities to serve eight or fewer people with mental-health disorders, but not those who are addicted to or illegally using controlled substances, Morgan said.

The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services offers licenses pertaining to facilities serving people with substance-abuse problems. A Mission for Michael does not have one of those, but instead one for a mental-health group home, she said.

A Mission for Michael engages in commercial activities that would be subject to regulation in the RE residential district, notwithstanding its group-home designation, said Chap Petersen, an attorney representing the Chengs. State code stipulates that group homes are not supposed to be treated differently, he said.

The facility does provide on-site treatment for drug addiction, which disqualifies it for a group-home designation, Petersen said.

Petersen held up small plastic bags holding mitragyna speciosa, an opioid-treating drug, that appellants reportedly found Nov. 4 on the facility’s driveway. County staff later said the substance is an herbal extract that also has been used to treat anxiety and depression.

Using a Freedom of Information Act request, the appellants received 45 pages’ worth of emergency-medical-services calls at the facility through September, Petersen said.

While privacy laws did not allow disclosure of the nature of those incidents, “you don’t bring a psychiatrist or a counsellor in an ambulance,” Petersen said.

Deborah Hanchar, who resides on Kellie Jean Court, said facility officials provided “inadequate and unhelpful” responses when she and her husband raised safety and security concerns. They also understated how many vehicles would be parked at the site, she said.

“Because some basic facets of AMFM’s operation simply have not matched what AMFM was approved for, we think the BZA panel should scrutinize these false claims in AMFM’s application,” she said. “We believe the BZA should then reconsider their land-use-determination approval or at least demand that AMFM abide by what is stated in its application.”

Nullie Stockton, who lives nearby, said she on Oct. 12 observed eight young adults walking in the middle of her street. The group was spread out across the roadway and refused to move aside when Stockton drove up.

“I felt bullied and unsafe because of their hostile glares,” she said.

Neighbor Lane Davis said AMFM does not supervise its clients around the clock.

“They have not been genuine with our neighborhood from the start,” said Davis, who described odd behavior by some of the facility’s residents. “I would ask you all to make a decision before something goes terribly wrong in this neighborhood.”

The BZA directed the board’s attorney to issue a summons, or use some other means, to compel an AMFM representative to testify at the Jan. 31 hearing about treatments being provided at the facility, including ones for substance abuse. The BZA also wants information regarding the facility’s staffing, hours and security.

BZA member Thomas Smith III wished facility representatives had testified at the Nov. 15 hearing.

“I think they should be talking to the neighbors and allaying some of these concerns,” Smith said.

BZA vice chairman James Hart agreed, saying “it would have been helpful to get answers from the horse’s mouth.”

Should either side not like the outcome from the Board of Zoning Appeals, its ruling can be appealed to the Circuit Court.