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FairfaxChurch plan to continue hypothermia center moves forward

Church plan to continue hypothermia center moves forward

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Vienna Planning Commission members on Sept. 22 unanimously recommended that the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) grant a perpetual conditional-use permit for Vienna Presbyterian Church to operate a hypothermia shelter in winter.

As in years past, the shelter would be operated in partnership with Fairfax County employees and located within the church at 124 Park St., N.E. The church would allocate 4,943 square feet of space for the shelter, including 4,148 square feet in the Great Hall and adjacent classrooms, 795 square feet in the Gathering Space and two adjoining bathrooms.

Church officials would like to operate the shelter overnight between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m. from Feb. 6 to 20, 2022. Vienna Presbyterian asked for that time period because Super Bowl Sunday falls in the middle, said church member Sue Hamblen.

“That’s the only time we let the guests eat junk food,” she said. “Normally, we feed them healthy. We roll down the big-screen TV from the ceiling.”

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A maximum of 140 people – both clients and volunteers – would be allowed at the site at any time. The church caps the shelter’s use at 50 guests, Hamblen said, adding that between 20 and 30 volunteers are there on any given night. Church volunteers check out at 9 p.m. and county staff take over, ensuring accountability, she said.

The shelter has experienced some incidents during the past five years, none of which was serious, she added.

Hamblen called the shelter program “transformative” and a “signature event” for the church and said volunteers are eager to serve, even showing up at 4:30 a.m. to cook breakfast for the shelter’s recipients.

The church in 2014 first obtained a one-year conditional-use permit to operate a weeklong shelter the following year, then in 2016 renewed the permit for another five years, with the shelter’s time period extended to up to two weeks. Vienna Presbyterian did not provide the shelter this past winter because of the pandemic.

Church leaders now are asking that the permit’s renewal be made permanent, allowing the shelter’s operation each year with no expiration date.

The Planning Commission voted 6-0 in favor of the church’s proposal. Chairman Stephen Kenney at the outset of the public hearing recused himself from the discussion and vote because his wife works with the applicant.

Vice chairman David Miller then presided over the proceedings.

Miller favored making the permit permanent – “We’ve run you through the ringer enough” – and said he found tales of the shelter’s successes “heartwarming.”

“The story you tell is the one we’ve heard from other faith institutions that have instituted this program,” he said. “I’m not sure who you help more: the folks you help or the people who are helping.”

The shelter already has been in the news this fall. The Vienna Town Council on Sept. 13 voted 4-3 not to donate $1,500 to the church to offset the cost of obtaining the conditional-use permit from the town.

A slim majority of Council members, including two who attend Vienna Presbyterian, said at least one other local church pays the permit fee for its hypothermia shelter and that Vienna Presbyterian footed the bill the last time around. Making the donation would set a bad precedent, they said.

The Vienna BZA will review the church’s permit application at its Oct. 20 meeting.

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