Still Trying to Define Family

Still Trying to Define Family

Commission Defers Family Ordinance

Karia Walter is a single mother to three small children, who lives in a four-bedroom, three-bath townhouse in Herndon. She also recently found out she is in violation of the town's occupancy laws.

Walter rents out her fourth bedroom in order to help make ends meet. Under current town ordinances, that is illegal. The seven-year resident is hoping the town passes a proposed amendment, aimed at eliminating over crowding and illegal boarding houses in residential neighborhoods. The provision would also allow Walter to keep her renter and her home.

"The guidelines as they are now are too restrictive. As it stands now, my family is caught in the middle," said Walter at a Monday night public hearing of the town's Planning Commission regarding the proposed zoning ordinance text amendment. "I love the town of Herndon, but I am being forced to consider selling my home and becoming a renter myself."

Walter, as well as the entire town, will have to wait a little longer for relief. The Planning Commission voted to defer action on the proposed ordinance, due to a number of issues raised at the hearing. The commission will take up the matter again in June. Before the ordinance can go into effect, however, it must be approved by the Town Council after a second public hearing.

ON THE TABLE is a twofold zoning ordinance. The amendment would strengthen the definition of family while also providing a numerical formula for zoning enforcement officials to calculate how many individuals can legally occupy a residential dwelling unit.

"The purpose of the ordinance is to get a handle on some of our occupation problems," said Richard Kaufman, the town's attorney. "… It's easier to enforce by staff and to use by citizens, the Planning Commission and the Town Council."

The ordinance defines family as a person living alone or any of the following groups living together as a single nonprofit and non-commercial housekeeping unit and sharing common living, sleeping, cooking and eating facilities: any number of people all of whom are related to the second degree of consanguinity (first cousin) by blood, marriage, adoption, guardianship or other duly-authorized custodial relationship; up to four people any one of whom is not related to the second degree of consanguinity by blood, adoption, guardian ship or other duly-authorized custodial relationship; two unrelated people and any children related to either of them; and not more than eight people who are in a residential home setting for the elderly or people with disabilities.

The provision excludes servants, live-in companions for the elderly or disabled, au pairs or up to two renters. The ordinance also defines an occupant as someone who is 18 years or older, thereby putting no restrictions on the number of children.

Secondly, the ordinance provides a mathematical formula, based on square footage, to place limitations on how "big" a family can be. For a single-family home or two-family dwelling, the maximum number of adults can not exceed the quotient of the floor area of the dwelling unit divided by 300. For a multifamily dwelling the floor area is divided by 200.

That means, for example, a one-bedroom apartment at Dulles Court Apartments, which is approximately 702 to 719 square feet, can support 3.5 adults. A three-bedroom unit at Gaslight Square Condominiums, which is approximately 1,057 square feet, can have 3.52 adults. A two-bedroom unit at Waterford Park Townhouses, with an approximate square footage of 1,836, can have 6.12 adults and a Four Seasons split-foyer, three-bedroom, single-family home, with approximately 2,200 square feet, can support 7.33 adults under the ordinance limitations.

"First town staff would apply the definition and if that doesn't work, then they would apply the numerical formula," Kaufman said.

WHILE THE ORDINANCE would strengthen current polices, it also raised some questions among the audience and commissioners. Commissioner William Tirrell pointed out, for example, the definition of family does not included so-called "blended" families such as half- or step- siblings. Residents also raised concerns over completely exempting children.

As one person asked: "When does a child stop being a child? … When they have a child? When they are bigger than you are? When they commit a crime? When they smoke their first cigarette?"

"As far as the exception for domestics and au pairs, keep in mind what drove this situation was one family with one au pair or one domestic. The way I read this, it is limitless [au pairs or servants]," said George Burke, president of the Court of Chandon Homeowners Association. "If this passes, I expect the number of 'au pairs' and 'domestics' will go up dramatically in this area."

The commission members also raised questions about the unlimited number of servants and au pairs, as well as inconstant language throughout the ordinance.

"I think we're 95 percent there," said Commissioner Jay Donahue.

The ordinance should come before the Planning Commission again June 7. At that time, the commission can favorable recommended its passage to the Town Council, give it an unfavorable recommendation or defer it once more.