Commission Defers Family Ordinance, Again

Commission Defers Family Ordinance, Again

So how many children and adults make up a family?

That is the question the Herndon Planning Commission has been wrestling with all year and still has not come up with an answer. Monday night, the board once more referred back to work session for further tweaking a proposed zoning ordinance aimed at eliminating overcrowding and illegal boardinghouses by defining who, and how many, can live within the confines of a residential house or apartment.

"I'm not sure we're there yet," said Commissioner Theodore Hochstein, who made the motion for deferral. "I wish we could find a way to tie it to the building code, so everyone could understand it better. I'm just not comfortable that we're there yet. I'm hoping that with one more work session we can put this together."

At issue for some commissioners is whether the proposal goes far enough in restricting the number of occupants of a dwelling unit in a residential neighborhood, and whether children should be included in any formulas determining the number of bodies that can inhabit the space.

EVEN AMONG the commissioners, some are saying enough already. Both Jay Donahue and Robert Burk objected to delaying a vote on the proposal, saying the board cannot account for every possible variable. Commissioner Judy Downer was absent from the meeting.

"I think this is ready to go. If we go any further with this, we're in danger of going into areas the Planning Commission shouldn't go," Donahue said. "I think we have all the evidence we need. É I think this should be sent [to the Town Council] now."

Since the beginning of the year, the commission has been revising this proposal which, if approved by the Town Council, would create a legal definition of family in the zoning code. It would further strengthen the code with a secondary measure that creates a mathematical formula that determines how many people, based on square footage, can live in a residential space.

The definition of family would permit any number of people living together that are related to the second degree of consanguinity (first cousin); up to four people any one of which is not related; two unrelated people and any children related to either of them; and not more than eight people in a residential-home setting for the elderly or disabled. The provision goes on to define an occupant as anyone 18 years or older, thereby placing no restrictions on the number of children. It also allows for servants, live-in companions or au pairs.

The second portion of the ordinance defines, through a formula, how big the family can actually be based on floor area.

For example, town staff has suggested a dwelling unit, which could be a single-family home, apartment, duplex or townhouse, with a floor area of up to 1,250 square feet can accommodate one adult per 250 square feet or no more than five people. Staff suggests a unit measuring 3,201 square feet or more can have eight or more occupants.

Therefore, under the staff's proposal, a two-bedroom unit at Gaslight Square Condominium Townhouses could legally have four occupants, while a two-bedroom unit at Waterford Park Townhouses could have six occupants, due to the difference of square footage.

"Staff has looked very carefully into the issue for apartments. Apartments are typically designed more efficiently to handle occupants than a single-family home," said Henry Bibber, director of community development.

As for excluding children from the provision, Bibber said, "We examined the problems we have in Herndon. We don't have a problem with too many children in our neighborhoods. We have a problem with too many adults."

STILL SOME IN THE AUDIENCE questioned why a seemingly unlimited number of children can live in a space.

"I think in counting children as occupants, you would have a greater impact," said Mani Fierro, an attorney and town resident.

He said children under 18 get drivers licenses, own cars, play loud music and litter, among other things that impact the quality of life in a neighborhood.

Councilwoman-elect Ann Null brought up the possibility of teen-agers having children, which would in effect create multiple generations of children living under one roof.

Town Attorney Richard Kaufman said the ordinance was written as it was because trying to limit the number of children would be indefensible in court.

"The U.S. Supreme Court É basically said that an ordinance that makes family get rid of children or limits the number of children that can live with the family will not be supported," Kaufman said. "Also the Commonwealth of Virginia defines a child as 18 and under. É We can't say a person is a child in the eyes of the commonwealth in every respect except in Herndon's zoning code."

Besides asking for clearer language and a definitive answer on when a child becomes an adult by law, the commission asked town staff to bring a sample of the educational material it plans to distribute to the general public regarding the new ordinance. In addition, the commissioners asked that evidence be presented from other jurisdictions on how effective or ineffective their ordinances have been in controlling overcrowding.