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Transition center draws complaints of neighbors / August 17, 2017
Public input on the new “transition center” at 1332 Moore Street for locals struggling with homelessness and unemployment dominated debate at the Monday night meeting of South Boston Town Council. With a large crowd of citizens in attendance, Council opened with citizen comment before turning to their regularly scheduled agenda.

The transition center will have a five-person maximum occupancy during the nighttime hours – including an on-site supervisor. All clients will be screened by a member of law enforcement, a behavioral health specialist, and a member of the Department of Social Services. The goal is to get the occupants out of the transition center, back into society and into the workforce.

Roger Browne of Talley Street disparaged the new center: the residents of the area now “have something that we all hoped for in our neighborhood: a homeless shelter.”

His concerns range from his own safety to that of his neighbors, the possible reduction of home values and the lack of information offered to residents. He also proposed a tax abatement for residents of the neighborhood.

“This has not been well thought-out or discussed,” Browne said. The transition center is “a significant change in the character of the neighborhood.”

Bobbie Anderson, also of the neighborhood, said the transition center threatens the safety and home values of the neighborhood. “How will the facility be managed 24/7, 365?” she asked.

Anderson proposed it be moved elsewhere, such as the Beechmont, Waddell Woods, or Brentwood subdivisions. “If this shelter is forced upon this neighborhood, privacy fencing should be placed at its borders,” she added.

Vinny Sarnataro, an early supporter of the project and owner of a property in the neighborhood said, “Nobody wants a homeless shelter,” but added, “From my understanding, this is just a house. Anyone can do anything with their personal property.”

Sarnataro said the center is taking a previously dilapidated property, fixing it up and not allowing it to be an eyesore on the neighborhood. The group has the appropriate permit and paperwork under South Boston ordinances, allowing five non-related people to live in a particular house. “It’s better than a homeless shelter,” he said, “it gives dignity to people who can go there and live.”

“Let’s give it a chance, let’s give it a try and if something happens I will be the first to join your side,” he said.

Catharine Wright, a licensed counselor with Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital, board member of the transition center and screener of applicants, acknowledged the concerns of those present, saying that all applicants would go through a screening process, starting with a background check of all public records. All sex offenders would be prohibited.

Should the potential inhabitant pass the screening process, they would sit down with the screening committee for an interview. Depending on the results, the person would be forwarded to other social service organizations or enter the transition center’s intake process — ensuring that they have documentation, medical records and a check of background and family histories.

The occupants would be limited to a 90-day stay and be required to take classes and counseling, working towards pre-discussed goals. They would be evaluated after this period and either continue their stay or be forwarded to other resources.

During the daytime, educators and counselors would be on-site to train and guide the occupants and a supervisor would be on grounds through the night hours.

Wright cited public meetings that took place on the project since November of last year, at Halifax County High School and Washington Coleman Community Center.

She said that “we would be glad to do a question-and-answer session at a later time,” and “this is a center to help people to get back into the community.”

Vice Mayor Coleman Speece told the assembled citizens that all actions took place without the sanction of Town Council but fall well within the limits of zoning laws. “This could have been done anywhere in town,” he said.

A resident of the neighborhood, Sharon Brogden, questioned the wisdom of having so many people at the house — especially with limited parking on a one-way street.

Wright responded that exceedingly few of the occupants would possess vehicles, and the majority of traffic would only occur during the working day when other residents would be at work.

“There’s not going to be numerous people coming in and out of the house,” she said.

Town Manager Tom Raab said that the transition center was fully compliant with federal laws and local ordinances. The locality reduces the number of eight unrelated residents to five.

Mayor Ed Owens acknowledged the citizen criticism, but said “this has been zoned properly, there is nothing within our authority to change.”

Owens said that the town will police and look after the neighborhood. He further urged both camps to “get together and talk about this thing.”

Another citizen comment came from Haywood Jennings, citing the lack of action of drainage issues near his home on Fleming Court and Lincoln Avenue. Heavy rains stop up drainage pipes, create mud runoff, and damage to his property. He also cited examples of town snowplows not coming to Lincoln Avenue, in some cases blocking the street. “This has been going on for 14 years and none of you on this council would want this,” he said.

Citing the previous topic of the homeless transition center, he said, “talk about property values, the value of my property is going down!”

Raab said that engineering plans have been drawn up to fix the problems and appropriate pipe had been ordered. The final step before construction was to file for easements for construction. However, he noted two large projects that needed to be completed before starting, specifically the ongoing wire work after the Hodges Street oak tree destruction on July 31 and preemptive work on Watkins Avenue “We hope to have this done before the end of the fiscal year” in June 2018, he said.

Past solutions and stopgap measures with a lack of follow-up, said Jennings, “never worked.”

“We’re being overlooked, neglected,” he said, “We just look for communications or the lack of.”

Also in the citizen comment period, Ben Capozzi, manager of the South Boston Farmers Market, thanked the council for their support of the Community cookout on July 27. He credits it as being the as-of-now largest event for the Farmers Market. “They sold out, which was unusual, but they sold out to new faces,” he said.

President of the Halifax Historical Society, Barbara Bass, presented the town with the first of 100 ornaments – an annual tradition done by her organization. The first ornament is always presented to someone involved with the property or project. This year’s ornament features the old tower of the old Cotton Mill which is the only remaining part of the former Halifax Cotton Mill, one of the largest employers in the Town of South Boston. The Society will have the ornaments for sale on Friday, August 18, from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. at North Main Furniture (Electric Service), 508 North Main Street, South Boston. Following this sale, ornaments will be available at the South Boston-Halifax County Visitor Center and North Main Furniture in South Boston, and Peddler’s Market in Halifax.

In the regular agenda, the council reviewed the 2016-2017 Highlights and the 2016-2017 Financial Summary. Council allocated nearly two million dollars to buy various public works equipment including a new fire engine, new fire extraction tools, roofing repair to the South Boston Library, Washington Coleman Community Center, and a new police car. The Felton House on North Main street was also demolished by the town for cemetery expansion.

$125,000 was added to the landfill closure fund for a total of $626,249. “We’ve got a couple issues that I’m concerned about so we’re building it up,” said Raab.

The council had close to $3.5 million dollars in its operating fund as of June 30, 2017.

Raab said, “it pleases me that were were three million [in the fund].”

“We couldn’t have done it without you,” said Raab, gesturing to the department heads.

Mickey Wilkerson, the town’s deputy finance director, presented her report on the past fiscal year. Overall, the town achieved 91 percent of its goal for revenues, and 93 percent of its goals for expenditures. Most tax rates and revenue sources were garnering above the projected goals. Delinquent tax collections were much higher than anticipated.

“We’re doing more aggressive second notices, we didn’t do that before,” said Wilkerson.

The less revenue and expenditures than expected is partially due to rollover of projects into the current fiscal year.

Council also moved to nominate Vice Mayor Coleman Speece to the board of directors of the Lake County Development Corporation. He will be formally appointed in September 2017.

Councilman Bill Snead was not in attendance.

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