Hundreds of dancers from around the region are voicing opposition to a proposed zoning ordinance change that could make it harder for Fairfax County restaurants to have dance nights.
While enthusiasts of swing, salsa and ballroom dancing are just looking for a neighborhood place to let loose once or twice per week, some county officials view restaurants that offer music and dancing at night as a problem that needs to be solved.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors will consider changes to the county zoning ordinances that govern entertainment at a public hearing Tuesday.
The proposed changes to the zoning ordinance also will affect pool halls, banquet halls, karaoke bars and hookah bars, but the proposed new regulations on dancing were the ones under the spotlight.
County zoning staff have proposed a requirement that would limit the maximum size of the dance floor at a restaurant to 150 square feet. Otherwise, the business must apply for a dance hall permit, which carries an application fee of $16,375. It also would shift the permitting process from one managed by the Board of Zoning Appeals to one requiring Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors approval.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask the communities around these uses to weigh in,” said Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee), one of the supervisors who asked for a zoning fix because of problems with establishments in his district. “The impact of a dance hall on its surroundings is quite different from that of a restaurant.”
McKay said he is not interested in banning dancing; he just wants restaurants to be better regulated. But dance enthusiasts say the net effect will be to shift their hobby to other jurisdictions.
David Norton of Bethesda — a dance instructor who, until recently, was teaching salsa lessons at Picante restaurant in Chantilly — said the proposed 150-foot limitation is “ridiculous.”
Although that amount of floor space might accommodate about 30 people at a packed nightclub dancing to pop and hip-hop, it only would accommodate a few couples dancing salsa or Lindy hop, he said.
Picante’s weekly salsa night was halted after five years because of the lack of a permit under current county zoning rules, when police visiting a neighboring business saw that people were dancing there, Norton said.
It is unlikely the restaurants that now are hosting these types of dance nights will be willing to apply for a permit under the new rules, Norton said, because there isn’t enough money involved to incentivize them.
Kathy Norris, an officer with the Northern Virginia Shag Club, said her group has struggled to find a new space after losing its longtime home at Renee’s Supper Club in Fairfax. They prefer to meet at a restaurant, rather than a hotel, because of the cost and more casual atmosphere, she said.
“Every place that has a decent dance floor is booked seven nights a week,” she said during a Planning Commission hearing last week. “Please do not do anything that would reduce the number of restaurants in Fairfax County with large dance floors.”
From the county’s perspective, however, restaurants that pull up the tables at night to make room for dancing also can be problematic. Deputy zoning administrator Michael Congleton said they have had problems at such establishments with violence, drugs, violations of fire code and alcohol laws and nudity.
One such restaurant on Route 1 had 100 service calls from police in one month, he said.
McKay said he understands the dance community’s concerns, and is open to tweaking the specifics of the new zoning code. But he also still strongly supports the concept of regulating dance clubs differently than restaurants.
Although the people opposing the change are likely not the ones causing problems, “you can’t write a zoning ordinance for one set of people and not for another one,” he said.
Some of these restaurants-by-day, night clubs-by-night technically qualify as restaurants under current zoning laws. County officials think that forcing such businesses to apply for a dance hall permit could cut back on problem businesses.
“I can somewhat understand,” Norton said of the county’s perspective. The dance clubs that generate police calls and noise complaints “is all they know. They only associate dancing with that.”
However, the law also will end up affecting law-abiding citizens, he said.
Norton reached out to the networks of dancers in the Washington, D.C., region and said he gathered more than 550 signatures on an online petition opposing the zoning ordinance amendment in a little more than 24 hours. There is an active Facebook group with hundreds of area dancers organizing to protest the ordinance.
“They have awoken a sleeping giant,” Norton said.
Commissioner Jim Hart said his office has received a large number of emails regarding the ordinance, primarily from the dance community.
Stopping the proposed changes is his first goal, but Norton said he also wants to keep the group engaged in changing the way that this type zoning enforcement is handled in Fairfax County, as the county already had been cracking down on businesses using current rules.
The Planning Commission made its recommendation on the ordinance Thursday night, after the Times’ print deadline. The Board of Supervisors will have a public hearing on the issue at 4 p.m. Tuesday.