County residents are raising concerns about a proposed new zoning ordinance that would limit how often people could have large gatherings in a private home.
Zoning officials proposed the limits to provide them with an additional tool to go after people who are regularly creating noise and parking problems that disrupt their neighbors.
For example, the county has dealt with someone running a restaurant in their home, said zoning administrator Leslie Johnson.
“It is not an easy subject to address with regulation,” said Donna Pesto, an assistant zoning administrator for the county.
As drafted, the rule states that residents are allowed to have gatherings of 50 or more people up to three times in a 40-day period, which equates to about 27 times a year.
Beyond that, according to the zoning ordinance, and you are now using your home for something other than what it was intended for.
However, opponents say that the proposal would infringe on individuals’ constitutional rights of assembly.
The proposal “poses a grave and fundamental threat to the Constitution,” said Matthew Clark, who is an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, as well as a county resident who hosts regular Bible study gatherings in his home.
“It doesn’t address the fundamental problem it is supposed to address,” Clark said. “It is needless regulation for a nonexistent problem.”
At a public comment meeting Wednesday, people also cited instances that would violate the proposed rule that are currently not generating complaints among neighbors.
One man said he is from a large Greek family that gets together for Sunday dinner every week.
A pastor of a church that regularly hosts events at the neighboring parsonage, which is a home, and a parent from a large home schooling group also said they were concerned that their regular gatherings would violate the proposed rule.
On the other hand, other homeowners said they were concerned that the restriction was not sufficient
“If it is happening next door to me 27 times a year, that is way too lenient,” said Jane Hilder, who is chair of the Lee District Association of Civic Organizations but noted that she was only representing her personal beliefs.
Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) has been speaking out against the proposal since it was first presented to the Board of Supervisors in February. He believes the concerns can be addressed using existing laws and that passing the new rule would quickly lead to a lawsuit.
“We are punishing the many for the acts of a few,” Herrity said. “We need to enforce the laws that we have on the books.”
Zoning officials are also proposing an overhaul of the county’s zoning ordinance. Those changes were better received at Wednesday’s meeting.
The Board of Supervisors approved a short-term fix to the noise ordinance in December to provide police with an enforcement tool. The county’s prior noise ordinance was considered unenforceable following a 2009 Virginia Supreme Court case involving Virginia Beach’s noise ordinance.
After taking that step to address “nuisance noise,” county staff proceeded to review the rest of the noise ordinance and propose an overhaul.
The proposed changes would set daytime and nightime decibel limits and prohibit certain types of noise-generating activities, like loudspeakers and construction, between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
There could also be new rules specifically covering animal noise, such as barking dogs and crowing roosters. Animal noise that is “plainly audible and discernible” across property lines or shared walls for more than 10 minutes out of a half-hour period would be prohibited.
Hilder said the civic groups she speaks with are thankful that the noise issue is getting another look.
“Having something specific that allows people to have something enforceable in their neighborhoods is very helpful,” she said.
Some of the attendees at Wednesday’s meeting suggested tweaks to the wording to make it more stringent, such as having an earlier nighttime cutoff time Sunday through Thursday nights.
There are two more public comment meetings on the proposed ordinance changes. If the proposals move forward, they will next go to the Planning Commission and then the Board of Supervisor for review and formal public hearings.
More information on both proposals is available at http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpz/zoning/noiseordinance/.