Here we go again.
Back in 2011, zoning officials in Fairfax County sparked a firestorm of sorts when they proposed an ordinance change that would make it harder for area restaurants to have dance nights.
From the county’s perspective, restaurants that pulled up tables at night to make room for dancing were problematic, and too often accompanied by fights, drugs, and violations of fire code and alcohol laws.
Unfortunately, dozens of well-intentioned restaurants that were fully compliant with existing zoning laws were penalized due to the actions of a handful of serial offenders.
We see potential similarities in Fairfax County’s latest zoning proposal.
This time, a proposed new zoning ordinance seeks to limit how often people can have large gatherings in a private home. Zoning officials proposed the limits to provide themselves with an additional tool to go after people who are regularly creating noise and parking problems that disrupt their neighbors.
While their intentions appear noble, the challenge going forward is addressing the noise issue in a reasonable manner.
As it stands now, 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. Based on last week’s public comment meeting at the South County Government Center, more than a few Fairfax residents feel the proposed ordinance still needs major tweaking.
One of those residents is Matthew Clark, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice who also holds regular Bible study meetings in his Fairfax home.
“[The proposal] poses a grave and fundamental danger to the Constitution,” Clark said, adding that “It doesn’t address the fundamental problem it is supposed to address. It is needless regulation for a non-existent problem.”
He found support from Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), who reiterated his long-held belief that noise issues can be addressed using existing laws.
“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.”
This one feels wrong on several fronts, beginning with homeowners being told who they can invite to their homes and when. Every spring, half a dozen major events—weddings, proms, high school and college graduations-- take place in the lives of many Fairfax families. Should those families really be tasked with counting days between events and limiting the guest list at their daughter’s graduation party or son’s bar mitzvah? While we won’t go as far as calling it a threat to our Constitution, it’s clearly a case of going after a few flies with a sledgehammer.
There’s also the issue of who is going to enforce this new rule. Are zoning officials expected to accompany police officers to every large gathering in the county and begin issuing citations? Not likely.
We get that Fairfax County has its share of inconsiderate neighbors and that the noise issue is legitimate. Since December, the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office has received nearly 4,000 calls for service for both loud party and noise violations. That’s a lot of resources spent on a problem that’s been all but impossible to enforce.
Fortunately, part of the county’s new noise ordinance addresses those issues head-on. The changes would set daytime and nighttime 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 to address barking dogs and other animal noise that is “plainly audible and discernible.”
Those changes are sensible and enforceable.
Limiting the number of large gatherings at a home to three in a 40-day period? Not so much.