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A controversial Fairfax City zoning text amendment that was credited with closing Virginia’s most active abortion clinic last month continues to generate feedback from advocates on both sides of the abortion issue.

The Virginia General Assembly and Virginia Board of Health recently voted to regulate abortion clinics in such a way as to treat them as surgical centers, requiring strict requirements and rigid building codes similar to those required of hospitals. Before this measure, clinics were not held to this standard and instead were regulated as physician’s offices instead of hospitals. The new regulation was certified by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, and then given final approval by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) in late spring.

On July 9, the Fairfax City Council voted to amend its own city zoning law to require all “medical care facilities” — excluding physician and dental offices — within city limits, to obtain a special use permit at a cost of $4,800, along with an approval process requiring a final vote by the council on a case-by-case basis for each applicant.

NOVA Women’s Healthcare, in operation on Eaton Place in Fairfax since 2006 — the most active abortion clinic in Virginia according to the Virginia Department of Health — shut its doors soon after the change.

But although the Fairfax clinic is closed, the City of Fairfax continues to receive opinions, questions and comments on the issue.

On July 23, Fairfax Mayor R. Scott Silverthorne responded to a July 18 letter sent to him by Alena Yarmosky, Advocacy and Communications Manager for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. The NARAL letter outlined a series of questions as to the city’s motives in approving the zoning amendment.

“While I understand that your organization, as well as the other organizations indicated on the letter, are concerned specifically about women’s health centers being unfairly targeted, the amendment of the zoning ordinance to define and require special use permits for medical care facilities in commercial districts is in no way targeted at a particular facility or type of facility,” wrote Silverthorne in his reply.

“In the same zoning districts in which medical care facilities now require special permits, the City of Fairfax requires special use permits for: dancing and entertainment within restaurants, drive-throughs at banks and pharmacies, convenience stores, and veterinarian offices, just to name a few.”

On the other side of the abortion issue, Silverthorne and the City Council are receiving letters praising their zoning decision as a legitimate and effective way of shutting down abortion clinics.

Liz Hildebrand, coordinator of St. Raymond’s of Penafort, a Roman Catholic church in Springfield, has created a pre-typed “thank-you” letter addressed to the Fairfax City Council, and has sent them out to parishioners and others, asking them to sign them and either email or snail-mail them to the mayor and council.

“The City of Fairfax has recently amended their zoning regulations in such a way as to redefine abortion clinics as ‘medical care facilities’ instead of regular business offices,” she wrote on the church’s website.

“This is a huge help to safeguard women’s health and preclude those who provide abortion from opening without medical standards. It also precludes them from opening in residential neighborhoods.”

On the church’s website, Hildebrand urges parishioners to send the letter as a way to counteract pro-abortion rights sentiments, which she says the council is receiving in droves.

“The fight is not over,” she writes. “Please write to the following Fairfax City Councilmen and register your support for the new zoning changes that just passed. They are under heavy attack by the pro-aborts (over 1,000 have already contacted the City Council).”

Hildebrand says the Fairfax amendment affects much more than just the people in Fairfax City.

“Women who went to that clinic were not just from the local area,” she said in a phone interview. “This is not just a Fairfax issue. It affects the whole community. I feel that the Fairfax City Council should be thanked for what they have done, and I was blessed with an avenue with which to be able to do that. I want the mayor and council to know that what they have done is noted and appreciated by the pro-life community.”

Fairfax City Manager Bob Sisson said that many people also spoke in person either for or against the issue at council meetings in late July. He added that despite continued rhetoric on both sides of the issue, Fairfax has no plans to change the amendment as it stands.

“I am not aware of any intention to modify the current amendment,” he said Wednesday. “There has been less commentary from either side in the last week, and there are no council meetings in August at all, so we will have to see what happens next in September.”



gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com