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Group home for moms, kids stirs emotions in Spotsylvania

A proposed faith-based group home in Spotsylvania County for young mothers with substance abuse problems has its share of supporters and opponents. 

Expect many of them to turn out Wednesday night for a Planning Commission public hearing on the Beauty for Ashes Women’s and Children’s Home off River Road. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the Holbert Building, 9104 Courthouse Road.

Michael and Cindy Zello of the nonprofit Teen Challenge of North Central Virginia are seeking a special-use permit to operate the facility from an existing six-bedroom house on 61 acres. Young mothers, ages 18 to 25, and their children would live there for 12 to 18 months.

All participants would voluntarily enter the program, the Zellos say.

The Planning Commission will make a recommendation on the project, and the Board of Supervisors will have the final say.

Some residents who live near the proposed group home say they are worried it will draw crime to the area and reduce property values, among other issues.

In an online petition, opponents said the group home poses an “imminent safety risk” to River Road residents by introducing substance abusers into the neighborhood.

“There are no measures in place to address residents who are not successful in the program and go AWOL into the neighborhood,” the petition letter says. “There are no measures in place to keep drug dealers from Bragg Hill out of a new target-rich environment.”

Opponents have also expressed concern about a lack of state oversight.

Meanwhile, the county has received letters in support of the home from the Rappahannock Area Council for Children and Parents, Caroline Christian Health Center and others.

“The professional, comprehensive and responsible manner by which Teen Challenge structures their programs assures the greatest opportunity for these young mothers and children to escape their current hopeless and predictably destructive lifestyles,” wrote Dr. Stephen Mandell, a Bowling Green physician.

The proposed home is affiliated with the Christian-based Teen Challenge USA, which has nearly 200 residential centers across the country, including two for women and their children. The program includes discipleship training, Bible reading, recreational activities and work projects, according to Teen Challenge’s website.

Up to 18 women and children would initially live in the 6,000-square-foot home off River Road. The Zellos, who are Spotsylvania residents, plan to eventually build a second home on the property that could serve another 18 women and children.

Cindy Zello said at a community meeting in May that the child occupants would be in preschool or early elementary school grades.

At the same meeting, Michael Zello stressed that the home won’t be a medical clinic. If necessary, women must complete rehab or detox before moving in.

Spotsylvania planning staff has recommended approval of the facility, writing that it is expected to have “minimal impacts” on transportation and surrounding homes. Women participating in the program are prohibited from having cars.

The staff recommended several conditions, including:

At least one staff member will be at the home 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The program cannot accept people convicted of sex offenses or other violent crimes.

Teen Challenge must drug test all participants prior to their admission. Those who test positive for drugs will be disqualified and random drug tests will occur “in accordance with Teen Challenge national guidelines.”

Fredericksburg attorney Charlie Payne, who represents the Zellos, said his clients “generally agree” with all of the conditions. The Zellos, for instance, have already said participants must be drug free when they move into the home and that anyone convicted of violent crimes would be prohibited.

The project appears to have the support of Planning Commission Chairman Robert Stuber, who lauded Teen Challenge in an email to The Free Lance–Star.

“The fact that the women participating in the program will be clean and not have a violent criminal record should be reassuring to neighbors,” he wrote. “Substance abuse in any family is tragic, and sadly, there are too few resources for rehabilitation.”

The Zellos opened a group home in 2009 on Poplar Road in Stafford County for men recovering from alcohol or drug addiction.

The Stafford Board of Supervisors actually voted against a conditional-use permit for the home, but later allowed it in a legal settlement.

A Stafford Sheriff’s Office spokesman said crime has not increased in the area since the group home opened.

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402