After three public hearings, totaling almost 20 hours of testimony, Planning Commissioners voted 4-3 against Project Hope and Harmony's application to create a formal day-labor site in town.
"The outcome was disappointing in a sense that they did not approve the land-use decision," said Kerrie Wilson, executive council Project Hope and Harmony. "The process is so complex with all the public comment, that it would be surprising if the decision was clean cut."
Commissioners Carl Sivertsen, chairman, Bill Tirrell, Ted Hochstein and Robert Burk voted against the recommendation for approval. Jay Donahue, vice chair, Ralph Beard and Paul LeReche voted in favor of the application.
The Planning Commission is in charge of reviewing and working out land-use complications before an application reaches the Town Council — the town's ultimate governing body. Council is where political opinions are considered in making a final decision for or against an application.
Contrasting testimony at a July 11 public hearing where comment was evenly split for or against the site, the majority of public comment on Aug. 3 was against the proposal. Because the proposed site borders Loudoun County, many against the application were from Sterling or neighboring Loudoun County residents.
Submitted by Project Hope and Harmony in late May, the application proposes to use the Herndon side of the existing police station parking lot to house a formal, regulated day-worker pickup site. The application includes providing shelter, tables, toilets, a bike rack and other amenities for the workers that are not provided at the existing unofficial site.
PROJECT HOPE AND HARMONY is a group comprised of Herndon residents, faith-based and nonprofit organizations that formed almost one year ago to create a better solution for Herndon's growing day-worker population.
Currently residents looking for day work unofficially gather at the 7-Eleven on the corner of Alabama Drive and Elden Street in Herndon. Neighbors of the unofficial site have complained about trespassing, litter and other nuisance crimes and safety issues with the site. Others have expressed concerns about entering the parking lot for fear workers will come up to their car seeking employment.
Proponents of a regulated site say these concerns would be resolved with a formal site. The creation of a regulated site would allow more control over the behavior of workers, in addition to providing them with resources to help them better assimilate to United States. If a formal site is not created, the current situation will only get worse and the town will have no way to legally control it, according to those in favor of a formal site.
Those opposed say its creation will negatively impact their quality of life. Concerns of trespassing through private property, loitering and other nuisance crimes and a decline in property values near the proposed site were the main reasons for opposition during the public hearing process. Other residents said they were vehemently against the site because they did not feel taxpayer dollars should go toward assisting undocumented citizens.
"I GOT A CLEAR impression that what happens off site is not my issue," said Sivertsen a day after the commission's decision.
Voting against the application because he felt it was "weak" Sivertsen said Project Hope and Harmony representatives "never came in with strong plans."
Because resident comment against the site centered around pedestrian and vehicular traffic, a report detailing the projected impact of the site on the surrounding areas was necessary, he said. He also wanted group members to answer questions directly, affirming or denying whether they would take strong action with workers who break the rules while on site.
"From a land-use perspective," he said, "based on what was before me, it wasn't until the wee hours of the morning that I started to think 'I don't think so.'"
Sivertsen's specific concerns ranged from who monitors the site once it closes to make sure men do not hang around and if anything goes wrong who is responsible to how Project Hope and Harmony plans to ensure workers do not trespass and how many staff members would be needed to monitor 150 workers?
"I didn't get a sense of assurance that this site isn't going to be an intrusion on that community," he said.
After closing the public hearing portion of the evening at 11 p.m., commissioners questioned town staff and Project Hope and Harmony representatives. Commissioners then discussed the matter until almost 3 a.m., before voting.
COMMISSIONER TIRRELL held the floor for almost two hours suggesting numerous amendments to existing conditions as well as adding conditions to the site plan.
Tirrell's suggestions put more responsibility on the applicant. They included changing the hours of operation to Monday through Saturday, 6 to 11 a.m., reducing the maximum number of workers allowed on site from 150 to 100, and trying to ensure only properly documented citizens could solicit work from the site. Most of Tirrell's amendments were accepted by the applicant and the commission. Commissioners voted against the amendment requiring Project Hope and Harmony to check for workers' legal documentation.
"If there are people that can't work," said Tirrell about undocumented citizens, "we are aiding in the help of them getting work and that's illegal."
Hochstein voted against the site because there was no evidence supporting that the proposed site would not mirror a site in Takoma Park operated by CASA de Maryland. The site in Maryland is operated out of a two-story house that offers various social services for workers, as well as a place for them to find employment. Hochstein said he is worried men will overflow onto the residential streets after the 11 a.m. closure of the proposed site, like they do in Takoma Park.
AFTER HEARING COMMISSIONERS state why they were voting for or against the creation of the formalized site, Mayor Michael O'Reilly said emotions were a part of the decision. Appropriate land use under the town's conditional-use permit requirements was another factor, he said.
Because applicants filing for a conditional-use permit offer detailed numbers regarding projected traffic impacts, both vehicular and pedestrian, on the surrounding areas with the proposed use, usually the decision to approve or deny an application is relatively easy, said O'Reilly.
The proposed day-labor site is more complicated.
"It is clear to me that this applicant can't provide that level of detail because this is a new use," said O'Reilly. Project Hope and Harmony cannot offer hard statistics to support its application because there is no existing site operating as they have proposed to research, he said.
Of the conditions offered by Tirrell, Project Hope and Harmony representatives will look into them before council meetings, said Wilson.
Because a handful of residents said the site did not have enough portable toilets for the number of men proposed on site, Wilson said the group will increase the amount to please the town. The group will also provide more staff members at the suggestion that two full-time paid staff was not enough to monitor the proposed number of workers. Local faith groups have volunteered to help on site, said Wilson, adding the workers will also have an active role in enforcing the code of conduct.
To compare Project Hope and Harmony's proposal to CASA de Maryland or the Shirlington site in Arlington is unfair said Wilson. Those sites operate under a different premise and in a different community.
"The big difference about this site, besides the professional staff, volunteers and day-laborer leadership," she said, "is we are offering incentives for the laborers and employers to access the services."
INCENTIVES INCLUDE finding work on site in a safe manner, as well as gaining access to resources in the community that can help workers better assimilate to United States. These services range from learning English to job training skills, among other things. Disincentives include being banned from the site. If banned, it would be illegal for workers to solicit work from other parts of town if a proposed anti-solicitation ordinance is enacted. Those seeking work at an unofficial site — if the anti-solicitation ordinance is approved — would face a monetary fine or jail time and ultimately be banned from the formal site, said Wilson.
"Project Hope and Harmony can meet the conditions of the zoning ordinance," she said. "The rest of it is a process and that's where trusting that this is an organization with experts and this is what we do, comes in."
Before appearing at the council work session, the group will review its application and make changes based on public and commissioners' comments, said Wilson.
This is not the first time the commission has recommended denial of an application to the council, said O'Reilly. There are instances where the commission has unanimously recommended approval and the council has unanimously recommended denial of an application and vice versa, he said.
"We will take into account the commission's recommendation," said O'Reilly, "but it's not a rubber stamp."