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Spotsy planners back retreat

A religious-based group home for young mothers with substance abuse problems got a strong endorsement from the Spotsylvania County Planning Commission on Wednesday evening. 

Twenty-three people spoke during an emotional public hearing on the planned facility off River Road, with 15 in support of it and eight opposed.

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

Many of the meeting’s attendees applauded after the Planning Commission voted 7–0 to recommend approval of what’s being called the Beauty for Ashes Women’s and Children’s Home. The Board of Supervisors, which has the final say on the proposal, will hold another public hearing on a date to be determined.

Planning Commission Chairman Robert Stuber issued a strong rebuke of some of the opponents.

“I saw some very large adult men tonight tremble in fear over a home for women and children,” he said. “I’m very saddened by that.”

Planning Commission member Mary Lee Carter offered to volunteer her time at the home if it is approved.

All of the opponents who spoke at the hearing live near the proposed facility. They say they’re worried about declining property values and crime, among other issues.

Spotsylvania resident Jim Fontaine questioned why supporters can’t put the home near them instead. “It seems to me like the residents, the ones that are the most impacted, are kind of having this very emotional issue just thrown in there, and there’s not much we can do about it,” he said. Two residents who live near the proposed home did express support for it at the public hearing.

Keith Peterson, who lives on River Road, said he’s worried about potential visitors to the home. “My question is, the husbands, the ex-husbands, the boyfriends, my concern is will those individuals have a reason now to be drawn to our community?”

Fredericksburg Attorney Charlie Payne, who represents the Zellos, said visitors won’t be allowed unless they have been “specifically authorized and screened by Teen Challenge.” “They do an extensive background screening on all of these individuals,” he said.

But Peterson questioned how that strict visitation policy would be enforced.

Meanwhile, many of Teen Challenge’s supporters grew emotional as they addressed the Planning Commission. Several, like Larry Scott of Locust Grove, have completed Teen Challenge programs. Scott said he called Michael Zello in 2001 and told him he needed help for a crack addiction. “Teen Challenge showed me how to be a man,” said Scott, who now works for CSX Transportation. “They introduced me to Jesus Christ.”

Up to 16 women and children—and two staff members—would initially live in the 6,000-square-foot home off River Road, which is owned by the nonprofit MacAnanny Foundation. The Zellos, who are Spotsylvania residents, plan to build a second home on the property by 2014 that could serve another 16 women and children.

The Zellos have said the home won’t be a medical facility. If necessary, women must complete rehab or detox before moving in.

And anyone convicted of sex offenses or other violent crimes is prohibited.

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 man who lives next to the Stafford home said he has nothing but positive things to say about it. A Stafford Sheriff’s Office spokesman said crime has not increased in the area as a result of the facility.

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402