Public Hearing Looms on Day Laborers

Public Hearing Looms on Day Laborers

Planning Commission to get next crack at temporary site on July 7..

For the executive director of a community-based nonprofit social services agency, Kerrie Wilson has become quite the expert on zoning ordinances and conditional-use permits. "I'm up to my ears in ZOTAs," she said. Not to mention, she has quickly developed an extremely thick skin.

"People in this town either love me or hate me," said Wilson, who has lived in Herndon for more than 20 years.

Like it or not, Wilson of Reston Interfaith has become a symbol for one of the most controversial issues facing the town today, the proposed temporary assembly site for the burgeoning population of day laborers. In the store or at a children's soccer game, Wilson is a walking lightning rod for the proposed center at the former Herndon Lumber site and people aren't afraid to voice their opinions — positive and negative — to the gentle-natured Wilson. Now, Wilson is looking forward to taking the proposal to a Planning Commission meeting on July 7.

Monday night, during the Planning Commission's work session, the town's community development staff presented their recommendations on the site's Zoning Ordinance Text Amendment (ZOTA) and the application for a conditional-use permit that would allow a temporary day-worker assembly site run and managed by Reston Interfaith.

IN ITS REPORT to the Planning Commission, staff recommended approval of the ZOTA. If approved, it would provide for day-worker sites, with a conditional-use permit and 11 other conditions, in the Industrial General (I-G) zoning district. In May, the Town Council indicated that the "initiating resolution" for the ZOTA should be taken by the Planning Commission. Staff said that the adoption of a proposed ZOTA "does not imply approval of the specific proposal for a conditional-use permit for this use."

The Planning Commission will take up both the ZOTA and the conditional-use permit at its July 7 public hearing.

During its June 23 work session, the Planning Commission tinkered with language regarding the ZOTA. Commission members and staff agreed to limit the maximum time for the permit to no longer than five years. "If it is temporary, it ought to have an end," said Henry Bibber, the director of Community Development. "It is a reasonable maximum length and it represents the best that we could do." At the request of Commission member Bill Tirrell, the language was changed to a two years with a maximum of three one-year extensions for a total of five years.

Judy Downer, another commissioner, asked whether or not the applicant, Reston Interfaith, could re-apply after the five years, if Stanley Martin, the owner of the land, was not ready to build. Bibber said that, in that case, they could presumably come in with a new application. It would be up to the Town Council, Bibber said, to review the application. Commission chair Carl Siversten insisted that "temporary means temporary," while Tirrell reminded his colleagues that, if all goes according to plan, there will not be a need for a similar site in five years.

Bibber said that he has asked Richard Kaufman, the town attorney, to look into the legality of making it a requirement that after five years, a similar use of the property could not occur for another five years.

Downer also expressed concern that a ZOTA, if approved, could lead to other similar ZOTAs in other I-G zoning districts. "Is this opening the door to other similar sites?" Downer asked Bibber.

Bibber said there could be "legal problems" if we discriminate between projects. "If we get another application, we have to entertain it," Bibber said. "But we are not automatically required to approve it at other locations; however, if they meet all these same requirements, it might be difficult to deny it."

That was not necessarily the answer Downer was looking for. "That sure gives us something to think about," she said.

Commissioner Robert Burk was also worried that similar sites would "proliferate" in other industrial sites around town. Tirrell pointed to the town ordinance that allows for only one pawn shop in the town limits. Bibber said he would have the town attorney look into the issue, but he expressed optimism that some such wording could be worked out by next month's public hearing. "It would be like limiting the number of porn shops a city can have," Bibber said, smiling.

IN AN INTERVIEW last week, Wilson said Reston Interfaith, the recipient of a $35,000 grant from the town, was "carefully weighing the conditions imposed on the final product," she said. "If it is something we can't live with then we would walk away."

Wilson said a town requirement that Reston Interfaith be forced to check documents would be one such "unacceptable" condition. Wilson also said she would be monitoring requirements that have been floated that would threaten the "dignity" of any of the day laborers. Some have suggested that the workers take specific public streets to get to the site. "That's not my job and I would draw the line there."

In its conditional-use permit, Reston Interfaith did project increased foot traffic in some of the surrounding neighborhoods. Calling day laborers "decent, hardworking folk," the application disputed those in the community who believe the laborers' presence would pose a safety threat. "Day laborers pose no more of a threat to children walking to school than does any other segment of the population," the application read. "Similarly, it is unjust to link day laborers with litter and crime."

The application also addressed concerns made by opponents of the interim site and neighbors of the lumber year. "It is hard to imagine that residential property values would be affected by a site that is separated from the properties in question by a fence, a thick stand of trees and an expanse of open field."

IN THE PLANNING Commission's July 23 work session, town staff recommended the commission defer the application, while they wait to hear comments from additional departments, including the police, and a further study of potential impacts.

Under the application for a conditional-use permit, submitted by Reston Interfaith, a portion of the site at the old Herndon Lumber yard would be equipped with two trailers with electricity and bottled water, a simple shelter for workers to wait, two portable toilets, 16 parking spaces and one mobile food service vendor. Reston Interfaith plans on using the trailers to assist workers and register employers.

Because of security and safety concerns, the existing building would not be used.

The site, according to the staff report, would be open for business from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. and would house no more than 150 persons. An on-site coordinator or other staff member of Reston Interfaith would be present at all times during these hours, the report said. "The site would be locked outside of those hours, although a double fence would allow for workers to be dropped off after hours without entering the main part of the site."