Boys town goes to war

Father Val Peter: His own worst enemy?

By Duncan Spencer

The Hill, September 5, 2001

Father Flanagan would roll over in his grave.

The crusading priest who founded Boys Town (renamed Girls and Boys Town for D.C. consumption) was by all accounts a selfless individual devoted to rescuing wayward youth; but his 21st century standard-bearer is an angry, defensive priest who sees enemies everywhere in his fight to open a new branch of the charity here.

Father Val Peter, who emerged from deliberate obscurity to deliver a scathing attack on D.C. on Capitol Hill, and on all who oppose his plans during the August congressional recess, may prove his own worst enemy. Upset by D.C.’s bureaucratic delays, Peter went ballistic. Peter has sued the city for delays in issuing building permits for his $13.7 million project at 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue S.E., under the provision of the Fair Housing Act, claiming his (about 40) youthful clients are denied housing and charging racism. He rebuked the community and personally attacked activists Will Hill and Ellen Opper-Weiner, leaders of Southeast Citizens for Smart Development – and Ward 6 City Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose (D).

Hill and Opper-Weiner were labeled “power-hungry, mean and nasty people” by the choleric priest, who seemed barely able to contain his fury at a carefully staged press conference Aug. 14 with the Lincoln Memorial as the backdrop. He painted the Father Flanagan organization as a victim of “fear and intimidation” from a Capitol Hill neighborhood peopled by “powerful politically motivated” residents “who say ‘not in their backyard,’ leaving us no choice but to ask the court to put an end to all this.”

Mayor Anthony Williams (D) has expressed surprise and annoyance at the suit. Spokesman Tony Bullock told The Hill, “This is a lawsuit looking for a basis; there is no basis. [Williams] is not opposed, but they have to do what everyone has to do – go through the process.”

Peter has refused to consider other locations for the complex, which will consist of townhouse-like structures to house up to 40 youths, plus an administration building. He claimed the site, a former parking lot, was the only one available in the city with the correct zoning.

Hill and Opper-Weiner, who had long predicted the matter would end in a lawsuit, seemed aghast at Peter’s vitriolic language, since the two had made repeated efforts to engage him and his representatives in dialogue at forums or private meetings over the past five months – without any result.

Those who oppose the development have gathered over 1,500 signatures, mostly from residents of the Hill’s east end neighborhood. They argue that the neighborhood is already too dangerous for at-risk youths, most of whom would be remands from the courts, and that there are already too many social service agencies in their residential neighborhood.Opponents add that there is another residential facility within 500 feet of the proposed site, an apparent violation of D.C. Regulations.

Williams, who has tread carefully on the issue, has said he considers Girls and Boys Town a fait accompli and wishes to ensure the development is a good neighbor.