UPDATED: A plan to convert a Dumfries church into a new Prince William County homeless facility will not go forward, Dumfries Mayor Derrick Wood said Monday.
Prince William County officials were negotiating a purchase of Grace Church, 1006 Williamstown Drive, to use as a new human services center and overnight homeless shelter, a project to which the Prince William Board of County Supervisors had pledged $3 million in federal coronavirus relief funds earlier this spring.
The county needed the Town of Dumfries to amend its zoning code to allow the new facility to operate in Dumfries' B-1 zoning district. Grace Church, which had applied for the zoning text change, formally withdrew its request in an email to town officials Monday, Wood said.
Wood, who is a member of Grace Church, said it was the right move because the new facility did not have the needed community support.
"The residents, their opinion was loud and clear with how they felt and what they want to see," Wood said. "...I'm happy they're withdrawing because it shows they're listening to the community and will work with them and not just shove anything into Dumfries."
The Town of Dumfries Planning Commission was scheduled to consider the zoning text amendment tonight, Monday, Sept. 14. That item will be removed from the agenda at the start of the meeting, Wood said.
Wood held a Zoom call on Friday, Sept. 11, to allow residents an opportunity to ask questions and express their concerns about the proposal to convert the church into an overnight shelter for up to 60 homeless adults. The facility was planned to be open 24 hours a day and would offer clients wrap-around services and programming aimed at helping them become housed, Prince William County Social Services Director Courtney Tierney said during the meeting.
Residents expressed concerns about loitering, possible criminal activity around the building and the facility's effect on property values.
It's not clear whether county officials have any alternate locations under consideration for a new homeless facility.
During the Sept. 11 meeting, Tierney said the county had not yet identified another location where the such a shelter could be opened prior to the Dec. 31 deadline for using the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds.
This is a developing story. Stay with Prince William Times.com for updates.
Original story: Dumfries officials consider plan to convert church into Prince William County homeless facility
Prince William County officials want to use federal COVID-19 relief money to transform a Dumfries church into a new human services center and overnight homeless shelter. But the plan is already coming under fire from some nearby residents over concerns about safety and possible impacts on property values.
Prince William County officials are eyeing Grace Church, 1006 Williamstown Drive, for the new facility. The church is on the market because the congregation is building a new church near Va. 234 and Van Buren Road.
The church faces U.S. 1 in Dumfries and sits at the front of Williamstown, a large residential neighborhood. The property includes a 25,000-square-foot building on about 6.4 acres. The church was assessed for $3.4 million earlier this year and was purchased by Grace Church in for $2 million in 2011, according to county property records.
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors set aside about $3 million of the $41 million it received in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to establish a new facility for homeless residents that could offer both overnight shelter space and wrap-around services. Prior to the pandemic, the county split those operations between two small buildings located off Telegraph Road in Woodbridge.
When the pandemic struck last March, the need for social-distancing prompted the county to move the overnight shelter to the county’s Dr. A.J. Ferlazzo building near the intersection of U.S. 1 and Cardinal Drive. The overnight shelter reopened in the gymnasium of the Ferlazzo building, which was large enough to allow for 6-foot social distancing between cots and chairs.
The shelter was then relocated to the Dale City Recreation Center for a few weeks during the spring before it moved back to the Ferlazzo building in June. During the entire time, the county housed some homeless in local hotels, including those who exhibited symptoms of the virus, were exposed to someone who had, or were older or medically fragile and required more solitary accommodations.
Supervisor Andrea Bailey, D-Potomac, said the vision for the new human services center is not only to provide overnight shelter, but also to offer a range of services and programs aimed at helping homeless residents become re-housed. The details are still being worked out, but such services could include providing access to mental health and substance abuse counseling as well as employment, life skills and workforce development classes, Bailey said.
The need for such help has only grown since the pandemic, as hundreds of residents have faced job losses and evictions, Bailey noted.
“These residents don't have a lot of influence when it comes to county decision-making, so what we're trying to do is to rally support for their cause,” Bailey said in a recent interview.
Bailey also said she’s wary about having a building as large as Grace Church sit vacant in Dumfries, which is part of the Potomac District. “We want to see it used for a greater purpose,” she said.
Dumfries officials consider zoning change
The only thing standing in the way of the plan, however, is the Town of Dumfries’ zoning code. Grace Church is located in the town’s B-1 zoning district, which does not currently allow homeless shelters by-right. The town would need to amend the code to add community shelters to the B-1 zoning district for the deal to proceed.
The matter will be before the Town of Dumfries Planning Commission on Monday, Sept. 14. During tonight’s meeting, the planning commission is expected to make a recommendation on the zoning text amendment to the Town Council.
Then, on Tuesday, Sept. 15, the Dumfries Town Council will hold a public hearing on the zoning text amendment and is expected to take a vote. Both meetings will be held at 7 p.m. and will be conducted virtually. Monday’s planning commission meeting can be accessed via the agenda, which can be viewed here.
Residents question: Why Dumfries?
Dumfries Mayor Derrick Wood held a Zoom call listening session about the proposal and related zoning text amendment on Friday, Sept. 11, to allow residents to hear more about the county’s plan and to ask questions.
“The majority of the public, right now, seems to be against the homeless shelter,” Wood said of residents with whom he had spoken prior to the Sept. 11 virtual meeting. While people talk about feeding and helping the homeless, the sentiment appears to be “not in my backyard,” he added.
“The homeless are already here. They are standing on corners; they are in the parks,” Wood said. “People just don’t necessarily see them.”
Wood said residents are worried the shelter would decrease home values and increase crime and loitering in the Williamstown area and other nearby neighborhoods.
Wood said he hasn’t made up his mind on the issue. “I want to hear what my continuants say about it,” Wood said. “I want to hear from both sides.”
During the Friday Zoom call, Prince William County Social Services Director Courtney Tierney aimed to reassure residents that the facility would offer structured programming and would not force those staying at the shelter to leave early every morning, as the county’s overnight shelter has in the past.
The facility would offer washers, dryers and showers and would remain open during the daytime hours. She predicted there would be some “coming and going” of those staying there, mostly among clients going to and from jobs, as about 60% of the county’s homeless are employed, she said.
“We will have a very strict operating schedule,” Tierney said, adding that those staying there would have to “follow a housing plan and complete assigned chores.”
About 11% of the county’s homeless residents are from the Dumfries area, Tierney said.
“We know there is certainly a need in Dumfries, but it’s not specific to Dumfries,” Tierney said. “It would serve other areas of the county.”
The facility would accommodate up to 60 homeless adults – possibly more in extreme weather or a natural disaster – and would have three cases managers on staff and at least two staff members present at all times, Tierney said.
The building would be monitored by Prince William County police, and the county would handle upkeep and landscaping. There would be no access to the building from the back, which would be separated from the Williamstown community by a fence, she said.
Tierney further said the county is on a short timeline for establishing the new shelter and human services facility because it needs to use the CARES Act funding before the end of the calendar year – or give it back to the federal government.
She further said the county has done “an exhaustive search” for other possible facilities but so far has not come up with any alternatives that would work with the end-of-year deadline.
A few residents on the call encouraged their neighbors to support the proposal. Idris O’Connor, chair of the county’s Cooperative Council of Ministries, which coordinates church-provided support to the county’s homeless shelters, noted the homeless residents are already part of the community and need a place to go and programs to help.
But other residents, including Willy Toney, a former Dumfries town councilman, questioned why Dumfries had to bear the burden of the county’s homeless services. Toney said the facility would be “counterproductive” to Dumfries residents’ efforts to improve their community.
“This is an assault on this community that we’ve worked so hard to elevate,” Toney said.