Recall that, when last we met, the Council had passed a resolution asking the staff to overhaul the entire zoning ordinance. The same zoning ordinance that was enacted in the 1950's. When we had working farms in the City. Fun fact: my bus was late to school a number of times because there were cattle in the road!! The same zoning ordinance that has cost the taxpayers of Manassas the better part of $2 million dollars over the past 7 years. Definitions of family. Sexually oriented businesses. Assembly uses in Industrial….and the hits keep a comin'. Each time that this happens the Council, like a recovering alcoholic, swears off the sauce: "we're never doing that again. It cost $200k and it's too damn expensive!!" We look, bleary-eyed, at one another and agree that "we need to take the tough vote and overhaul the entire zoning code in order to put this to bed once and for all".
But for all of that determination, it never happens. We stagger into the populism bar and fall off the wagon. "$20k doesn't seem like so much to regulate abortion clinics"…$20k is just a downpayment and we're off….
Last night we had about 100 folks come to the Council meeting and demand that we take up and pass Mr. Aveni's proposed zoning amendment. This amendment would align one of our local zoning definitions – the one for outpatient centers in particular – with language found in the state code. This change would mean that the City would include abortion clinics as outpatient centers. It would also require a special use permit for any of those facillities to locate in the city.
Allow me to be clear: I've no love of abortion but this process was already in place. It's what the Council voted on last time around. Those that want to see this regulation tightened were going to get what they wanted, just not when they wanted it. Some mentioned it would take 3 years. That's not accurate. The "definitions" part of the zoning code – the part that defines what a "restaurant" or "outpatient facility" is and does – was going to be the first part of the task we took up. That was slated to be done by the middle/end of summer. That wasn't soon enough for the anti-abortion folks. So, they did what succesful political movements do and packed the room. Citizens time was several hours long after which Mr. Aveni brought up his resolution again and asked for a vote to send this zoning code amendment along with a requirement that a SUP be issued for abortion or other outpatient surgical centers that want to open in the city to the planning commission. Mr. Randolph offered a substitute motion that asked that the staff study this issue for the next 2 weeks and have a staff report ready at the next Council meeting where the vote could be taken. This passed and this item will be on the agenda for our first meeting in March.
My concern is simple:
Having the Council dictate to the staff that a SUP be required is putting the cart before the horse. When we have done this previously, we were told by our consultants (who were pretty sharp), staff and lawyers that we needed to do the legwork in order to demonstrate that regulation was necessary before we enacted changes to our zoning code. Especially where federally protected users are concerned. There has been some staff work done but the outcome seems unsure at this point. This motion would appear to pre-judge the outcome of staff and legal work. That's got potential to cause some remarkable legal headaches. This is not some abstract concern that can be hand-waved away. Here's the takeaway: I support an effort to examine medical uses but I want the City to follow the necessary process and the medical uses work be part of a larger overhaul. That's it. Doing is seperately is risky and far, far more expensive.
As a general comment it continues to frustrate me that the Council refuses to spend time on municipal policy until some problem explodes in front of us and after which we rush to drown it in money or just ignore it. We are adding money for jail space and police officers at a regular rate….doesn't that beg the question as to whether we should be examining less expensive strategies to see if we can't keep this from happening? We're spending $1 million a year on a library system that doesn't have a branch in the city. Manassas Park is opting out. Too expensive and no branches are being built near either city. Average incomes in the City continue to lag our peers by a wide margin and we have more affordable housing than anyone in NoVa….in the middle of one of the richest counties in the entire country. Doesn't that bother anyone? The City has no viable strategic plan so is it any wonder the city is struggling to thrive? The inertia of idleness is accelerating to an extent where something really groundbreaking will be a necessary predicate for meaningful action.