Citing concerns about the McShin Foundation’s location in a downtown business district, the Warrenton Town Council voted unanimously Tuesday to deny a special-use permit to allow the nonprofit to operate what would have been the town’s first residential-treatment facility for people struggling with addiction.
The vote came after the council heard nearly two hours of testimony from both supporters and those who said they empathized with the foundation's goals but objected to its chosen location.
Some area business people expressed concerns about trash and the possibility the facility could hurt nearby property values.
But the council also heard from several recovering addicts, grieving parents of young-adult children lost to overdoses and other local residents who spoke of the need for local substance-abuse services to combat the ongoing opioid-addiction crisis.
Council members called the testimony “heart-wrenching” and agreed that Warrenton and Fauquier County need more intensive services for people seeking help for substance abuse.
At the same time, councilmembers said the proposed facility, located in the Rider building at 30 John Marshall Street and adjacent to an office complex, would not comply with the area’s “central business district” zoning rules, which prohibit residential uses on the first floor of commercial buildings.
The McShin Foundation had applied for a special-use permit to operate a 28-day, 14-bed residential-treatment program inside the building, which they have used since August for daytime appointments and counseling sessions.
In making the motion to deny the permit, Councilman Kevin Carter (Ward 5) listed several reasons the residential facility would run afoul of town’s zoning rules as well as the goals and objectives of the comprehensive plan, which include promoting retail, providing commercial space and expanding the town’s tax base.
Carter’s motion also took issue with the number of clients the McShin Foundation sought to serve in the overnight program, saying the request for more than eight beds “is excessive for a building of that space and design.”
Councilman Bob Kravetz (Ward 4) acknowledged the debate was “emotional” but insisted the town council’s decision was only about zoning.
“We’ve heard a lot of emotional statements tonight. But the issue before the town council is an issue of zoning,” Kravetz said. “I think everybody up here and everybody in the audience agrees it is a wonderful program, it is a necessary program. Nobody’s disputing that. But we have to make our decision based on zoning and location.”
Councilman Jerry Wood (Ward 1) said he had planned to vote in favor of the facility until he took a closer look at the comprehensive plan and zoning rules. “It really breaks my heart not to vote for this situation… but my hands are tied,” Wood said. “They’re simply tied.”
Vice Mayor Sunny Reynolds (at large) said the town “desperately needs this facility” but said the council had to deny the special-use permit because allowing it might invite others to ask to use the first floors of commercial buildings for living spaces.
“I’m not worried about trash, I’m not worried about smoking on the property, I’m not really worried about any of that,” Reynolds said in response to some concerns voiced by opponents. “I just feel we have no choice but to follow the zoning codes of the Town of Warrenton.”
But Wood, Carter, Sean Polster, Kravetz, Reynolds and Councilmember Alec Burnett (Ward 2) all pledged to work with the McShin Foundation, or other groups, to find what they called a “more suitable location” for a residential treatment facility. Wood suggested a former medical office or a building closer to the Fauquier hospital.
Reynolds added that she wanted to clear up misconceptions that county officials sought buy the building “out from under” the McShin Foundation. Reynolds said that wasn’t true and that she’d been aware of the county’s efforts to buy the building for about two years. The county is the process of purchasing the building, which officials say will eventually be torn down for parking space.
“I will do anything in my power to do teamwork to help find a more appropriate location,” Reynolds added. “I know they’re out there. … We’re going to make this work. We’re going to get this, and we’re going to do the best we can.”
But whether the McShin Foundation will find another building – or even be allowed to stay in the Rider building in the near term – is not guaranteed.
County officials had pledged only to lease the building to the McShin Foundation for three years if the permit was approved. Now that the town council has denied the permit, Chris Connell, the facility’s manager, said she was hopeful but not certain the three-year lease would come to fruition. The facility is currently operating without a lease, she said.
In an interview after the meeting, John Shinholser, president and founder of the McShin Foundation, said he was “hopeful” the council would approve the permit but called the decision “no big surprise.”
Shinholser said he expected his organization would continue offering services at the Rider building but said the foundation would now look for what he called “sober houses” to rent nearby. Such homes, he said, are protected by federal law.
The foundation now refers clients to the McShin Foundation’s Richmond facility, a 178-bed center located in a Baptist church, if they need residential treatment or a sober place to live as they continue their long-term recovery. Shinholser said the facility is currently housing “about a dozen” clients from Warrenton.
Admission to the initial 28-day program, which utilizes counseling as well as medication-assisted treatment, can cost more than $9,000. But Shinholser said the program uses a sliding-fee scale and has accepted several indigent clients who cannot pay the full price. Resident clients typically pay about $135 a week for after their initial 30 days in the facility.
Moira Satre, founder of the Come As You Are coalition, a local family support group, said the council’s decision was “unfortunate” and said she remains skeptical of the councilmembers’ claims that the county’s decision to buy the Rider building was not an effort to displace the treatment program.
“It’s just so suspect. They said they had been looking at the property for a number of years. They had every opportunity to buy a building that was vacant. So why act so quickly?” Satre said. “They had all the opportunity to do what they said they wanted to do, but they didn’t act on it until the McShin Foundation [moved in].”
What’s more, Satre said, local elected officials seemed to be looking for ways to deny rather than accommodate a community need. “They’re elected officials,” she added. “They should be serving the people’s needs, not the government’s needs.”
Still, Satre said she hoped the councilmembers would come through on their promise to help McShin find another location.
Shinholser said the community likely would not wait for “the bureaucrats” to act.
“This is the community percolating up, saying, ‘We’re not waiting. We’re going to do what needs to be done,’” Shinholser said. “And the community’s actually going to bypass the bureaucrats and the politicians. You watch what these people do. … While they’re talking about it, we’re going to be doing it.”
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