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Planning Commission Delays Action on Day Laborer Site

Conversation to continue at its August 4 meeting.

Mary Burger is scared and the longtime Herndon resident says she isn't alone.

Walter Rodriguez just wants a safe place where he can find temporary employment. Rodriguez isn't alone, either.

Burger who lives on Pearl Street near the proposed interim day laborer site doesn't like the idea of day workers marching through her neighborhood on their way to the site.

Rodriguez, who lives on Alabama Drive, is one of those day laborers who may pass Burger's home on the way to an interim day laborer site at the old Herndon Lumber Yard.

Tuesday night, both Burger and Rodriguez gave impassioned and disparate speeches to the Herndon Planning Commission on the complicated quest to solve the town's day laborer riddle.

"They will be allowed to walk through our neighborhoods," Burger worried aloud. "I am asleep at 4:30 in the morning and they will wake up every dog on the block. I'm terrified to death and I don't like that feeling."

Burger said that over the years she has had numerous problems of "drunken Hispanics living in the woods" near her Spring Street home.

Steve Mitchell believes there should be a site in the town, but like Burger, he is not excited about the possibility of "heavy pedestrian traffic" in a historic neighborhood at 4 a.m. "Somebody will get hurt," he said.

Another Spring Street resident, Megan Ferguson said, "we enjoy our neighborhood the way it is now."

Kerrie Wilson, the Reston Interfaith executive director and a Herndon resident, said she is looks forward to working with the neighbors to alleviate their concerns. Wilson said she envisioned the hours of operation between 6 a.m. and noon. "I do care about perceptions and fears," she said, adding that the addition of a community advisory committee and a draft of the code of conduct would help keep interested neighbors and day laborers part of the process.

Commissioner Jay Donahue also tried to alleviate fears and shoot down misconceptions. "We are not facilitating illegal activity," he said. "I can't believe I have to go on the record and say that."

TUESDAY NIGHT, RODRIGUEZ, who has set up shop at the 7-Eleven for eight years, defended the plight of his fellow workers who gather near the corner of Elden Street and Alabama Drive each morning looking for work. "We are not a burden for this country or this town," Rodriguez, speaking through an interpreter, told the commission. "We contribute to this society and we pay taxes."

Stuart Tabb, the associate rector at St. Timothy's, urged the audience to cool their rhetoric about the issue and especially the day laborers themselves. "We don't want more of 'those people,' you say they are illegal--that's an adjective not a noun," a teary-eyed Tabb said. "Let's treat people as people."

Like many opponents of the plan, Arthur Nachman worries that a controlled site will not eliminate the current uncontrolled and informal site on Alabama Drive. "If this day laborer site is established and the congregation at the 7-Eleven continues, what would the town do at that point?" he asked.

Luis Pineda, another Herndon day laborer, said he understood and respected many of the concerns of neighbors, but he assured the commission that day laborers were not a drain on the town. "We really need this site and we know this is a historical process," Pineda, said through a translator. "The development of towns and cities depend on workers like us. We love Herndon. We love the United States. We want to contribute to the Town of Herndon, but we are not the problem."

Shortly after Pineda sat down, Bernie Miller stood up in opposition to the site. "There's not much future in being a day laborer," she said. "These people need to be taught English so they don't need interpreters."

SEVERAL OPPONENTS like Dave Kirby questioned the appropriateness of the town's involvement in the issue, while others wondered why the staff had limited its hand by restricting the ZOTA to the I-G, or Industrial, zone.

Henry Bibber, the director of Community Development, said the I-G district was "appropriate." "The staff felt that we should make it as limited as we could," he explained. "By coincidence we have an application in the I-G District."

In his address to the commission, Steve Mitchell encouraged the planning commission to look beyond the I-G District. "We are no fools, this thing is being rammed down our throats," he said.

"If you pass something tonight, I feel like I've been slapped in the face."

Later in the night, Commissioner Donahue pointedly refuted Mitchell's claim. "This is not a new issue," he said. "No one is suddenly trying to shove anything down anyone's throat."

Robin Caroll also encouraged the commission to look at other districts. "Look beyond just the original request so we don't have to come back and revisit this in the future," she said.

If it was up to Burger, she would take the town out of the equation entirely. "If Reston Interfaith wants to provide this, then they have acres of land. Let the churches take care of the people they want to take care of," Burger said. "We should not be a pilot program. Our $35 million budget is already bursting at the seems."

Wilson reiterated that the site, which she described as being "Campus-like" atmosphere, is temporary and is not, as many have claimed, an illegal enterprise. She also challenged critics who urged the town to look at other zoning districts. "Those are stalling techniques," she said.

She said that all of the town's churches are zoned in residential neighborhoods and Wilson doubted that opponents would want the site in such a zone. "There are no other readily available sites to us," she said.

Jose Venegas, the day labor coordinator, urged the commission to pass the ZOTA and the conditional use permit based on "reason, logic and common sense" rather than "fear and misconceptions based on race and stereotypes."

"You have an unique opportunity to do something tangible and meaningful," he said. "This site will benefit the laborers and the community."