By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post, August 15, 2001
Girls and Boys Town, the Nebraska-based children’s charity, filed a federal lawsuit yesterday against the District government, a D.C. Council member and two Capitol Hill neighborhood activists, accusing them of conspiring to hold up building permits on a proposed facility on Pennsylvania Avenue SE.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court and announced yesterday at a combative news conference on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, turned up the volume on a bitter neighborhood fight in Capitol Hill.
By the end of the news conference, Girls and Boys Town Executive Director Val J. Peter — a Catholic priest — was trying to shoulder an activist away from a reporter, and residents and charity officials were bickering before TV crews.
By the end of the day, many of the defendants named in the lawsuit were complaining that it was only an attempt by Girls and Boys Town to steamroller its critics. “I think it’s a frivolous suit,” D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), a defendant, said by telephone yesterday. Girls and Boys Town “were getting very impatient with the level of citizen concern and want it to go away.”
Tony Bullock, an aide to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said that Girls and Boys Town had not been treated differently than other permit applicants. He said the mayor was surprised by the lawsuit.
Girls and Boys Town officials have “to advance their application like everyone else,” Bullock said. “This is a lawsuit struggling for a basis.”
Girls and Boys Town bought the 1.6-acre property, at Pennsylvania and Potomac avenues SE, last year. The charity plans to build four town houses as well as a dormitory and administration building. The town houses would each house six abused or neglected children, overseen by a married couple living in each home. The complex would have space for 40 children at one time, some living there temporarily, others living there long term.
In the suit, Girls and Boys Town alleges that it has been asked to do an environmental impact survey and an archaeological survey of the site when neither is needed. The charity also contests residents’ claims that the property should get a zoning review because it is within 500 feet of a group home for retarded adults. These moves show that the Girls and Boys Town plan is being discriminated against, the suit says.
The suit demands that the building permits be granted and seeks unspecified monetary damages.
Ambrose is named as a defendant, along with city planning director Andrew Altman, Altman’s deputy Ellen McCarthy, the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the District government as a whole. Neighborhood activists Will Hill and Ellen Opper-Weiner, who have led the effort against the project at Pennsylvania and Potomac avenues SE, were also sued.
The suit accuses the city and neighborhood activists of racial discrimination and bias against disabled people. Many of the children expected to live at the site would be ethnic minorities and have mental or emotional disabilities, charity officials said.
Ambrose and some area residents say the plan would worsen the neighborhood’s problems with drugs and crime. But the Girls and Boys Town plan appears not to require a zoning change. So this summer, neighbors have been scrambling for other ways to fight the plan and finding few.
Both sides have pushed the boundaries of the debate. At an anti-Girls and Boys Town rally in April, an activist dressed as the ghost of Boys Town founder Father Edward J. Flanagan — wearing priest’s garb and white makeup — denounced the project.
And at yesterday’s news conference, Girls and Boys Town opponents yelled out questions and heckled several speakers. Charity officials blasted back, with Peter calling the opponents bullies.
Peter said afterward that Girls and Boys Town had held community meetings about the project but had been shouted down every time.
“After so much of [this], we said, ‘Enough’ ” and sued, Peter said.