The Herndon Town Council took, as one citizen put it, "the first step of a journey the town doesn't want to take," when it amended the zoning ordinance to allow for a temporary assembly site for day laborers, by a vote of 5-2, with Council members Dennis Husch and Connie Hutchinson opposed. The amendment opens the door for an organization to submit a conditional-use permit application to create a so-called day-laborers' site in either a residential, commercial or industrial zone.
While the intent of the public hearing was to hear the merits or flaws of the amendment, most of the three-hour hearing was devoted to rehashing the arguments for and against a site in general. The issue has been so emotional that citizens attending Monday night's hearing had to pass through a metal detector and have their bags searched before entering the Council Chambers.
"This is a terribly difficult issue and there is no right answer," said Councilman Michael O'Reilly. "We've got a problem at Alabama Drive and Elden Street. We've tried to look at it as a land-use issue and that's what's before us."
THE APPROVAL is the first step in a process that could lead to the council enacting an anti-solicitation ordinance, intended to ultimately close the informal site at the 7-Eleven at that intersection. However, in order to enact the anti-solicitation ordinance, the town first must approve a temporary site, if the process gets that far.
After all the debate, some on the council think it will be hard to attract an organization willing to go through the required public hearings to gain a conditional-use permit. So far, only Reston Interfaith has expressed interest in managing a site. However, when asked if Reston Interfaith would still be interested if the proposed ordinance was amended to include a definition of day laborer that described the person as being able to legally obtain a job in the United States, Kerrie Wilson, representing the nonprofit group, was noncommittal.
"I think we're at a point where the only application we're going to get is from a faith-based organization and I don't think we're going to find someone willing to go through all this and we will still have the same problem we have now," said Councilman Harlon Reece, in response to the attempt essentially to require the day laborers to prove they are legal citizens. The attempt failed, with Husch and Hutchinson casting the only supporting votes.
The approved ordinance limits a potential site to either town-owned property or property owned and used for worship by a religious group in a residential zones, as well as lots in commercial and industrial zones. The site must be at least 1 acre in size, provide shelter from the elements, potable water and toilets; have sufficient staff to control activities; and have written operating procedures governing the site incorporated into the use permit, among others. The ordinance also limits the permit to two years with up to three one-year extensions and limits the town to one site in operation at a time.
AS IN THE PAST, the hearing drew people opposed to the town sanctioning a site at all, as well as those who favor having a controlled environment over the current situation. Either way, nearly everyone agreed creating a formal site would not address the issues of public drunkenness and other questionable behavior that plagues the 7-Eleven site in the evenings now, when the people congregating are clearly not looking for work.
"What my concerns are are on a daily basis. I don't feel my wife is safe going to that 7-Eleven. My mother goes two blocks around to avoid the 7-Eleven," said Carlos Vasquez of Virginia Avenue. "It's because it's a group of men that congregate there. It has nothing to do with whether they are legal or illegal. It could be an Irish rugby team."
The original idea behind the formal site was to not only provide a gathering place so day laborers could find work, but to also offer them social services, such as educational classes, that could help them improve their situations and gain green cards. Some urged the council to keep that goal in mind and to avoid negatively classifying the population the formal site would help.
"This is an emotional issue for me. I see everyday, more and more people talking about illegals. I think for those people it's being humble, being brown and going to work. That's not being illegal," said Anna Rochac of Dulles Place. "The fact that I have this fat accent doesn't mean I'm illegal. The fact that I am brown doesn't mean I'm illegal."
Even with this approval, the town would still need to receive an application for a conditional-use permit and a site has to be selected and approved. At the same time, the council has the option to create an anti-solicitation ordinance that would prohibit any informal sites from popping up in town. Each step of the way requires a public hearing.
"This is just the first step," Reece said. "But it's not a guarantee there will be a second step."