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Fairfax Zoning Amendment Clashes With Abortion Rights Advocates

Fairfax City Council votes for zoning amendment that pro-choice advocates argue will limit access to legal abortions.

A woman speaks out against a zoning amendment in Fairfax City that affects medical facilities. (Photo: Jennifer van der Kleut)
A woman speaks out against a zoning amendment in Fairfax City that affects medical facilities. (Photo: Jennifer van der Kleut)

A split Fairfax City Council amended its zoning code related to medical facilities Tuesday, dismissing arguments from pro-choice advocates that the move would further limit access to legal abortions.

The move could lump clinics that provide abortions with hospitals and surgical centers, rather than with doctors' offices, making it more costly to obtain required special use permits.

According to staff reports on the City’s website, as well as a presentation by City zoning administrator Michelle Coleman, the amendment separates medical-related facilities into two categories: One includes hospitals, urgent-care facilities and surgical centers; the other includes physician and dentist offices.

The measure passed, 4-2.

Several members of the public said they felt such a classification targeted women’s health clinics – including those that offer abortions.

Because those permits are expensive, clinics that provide safe and legal abortions will find it difficult to survive in Fairfax City, they argued.

“This really feels like the City of Fairfax’s way of passing its own TRAP law (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) against the will of its residents,” one speaker said.

When asked how the city would determine how a medical facility would be classified, city staff said certain criteria would be examined, such as the facility’s number of providers, beds, “and other factors.”

Many public speakers took issue with added phrases such as “and other factors,” saying that the language was too vague, and in the case of one speaker’s address, “duplicitous.”

One speaker, who identified himself as a lawyer, said such language “leaves it open to arbitrary discrimination by a zoning administrator with an anti-women’s health political agenda.’”

When it came time to vote, Councilmember Jeff Greenfield suggested that, if the council felt the amendment was too vague, they should defer the vote into September to allow more time to hash it out, rather than vote on it as it was.

Mayor Scott Silverthorne spoke out strongly against the idea.

At that point, he also took a moment to address the audience.

“I don’t appreciate some of the outside groups here tonight, such as NARAL (National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League of Virginia), parachuting into my community and spreading misinformation. I’ve seen the emails, and I’ve had to call several reporters and television reporters to address them,” he said. “This vote is not about abortion.”

Council members Ellie Schmidt and David Meyer opposed the amendment. 

Council members Steve Stombres, Jeff Greenfield, Dan Drummond and Michael DeMarco voted in favor of the amendment.

What do you think of the zoning amendment passing? Tell us in the comments below.


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Sharon Chang July 09, 2013 at 10:33 PM
Abortion is, in fact, surgery. Resistance to classifying (and holding to certain standards of sanitation and other aspects of medical facility maintenance) as a surgical center an establishment that exists for the purpose of performing surgery doesn't make sense. How anyone could consider such resistance to be in the best interest of patients, whether they're men or women, is a mystery.
John Judy July 10, 2013 at 07:58 AM
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" seems like the conservative approach to me. Abortion providers do fine without "helpful" "concerned" government-forced childbearing zealots trying to cram their religious beliefs down our throats under the guise of zoning laws. Root canals and mole removals are surgery too. Do you want your dentists and dermatologists to refit their offices to large hospital standards? If so, have fun paying for that. Otherwise mind your own business and keep your hands to yourselves.
Catherine S. Read July 10, 2013 at 08:27 AM
Just for the record, I am a resident of Fairfax City and I am a member of the Board of Directors of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. And I didn't "parachute" into my own city to object to vague language that allows a political body to vote on whether a "clinic" is a clinic and will get a permit to operate in the city. It has to be a tone deaf political leader who doesn't see the connection between what is going on in Richmond, in Texas, Ohio, Wisconsin and North Carolina and what just happened in Fairfax City.
Dawn Savitski July 10, 2013 at 09:17 AM
In response to Sharon Chang's comment, dental offices also perform surgical procedures, but they are not classified as surgery centers. The removal of teeth requires anesthetics and it often involves cutting into the bone as well as the gums. Surgery in a nutshell. Often times, there can be serious complications with anesthetics during surgical removal of teeth. And what about implants? Dental insurance companies classify the removal of teeth surgical procedure. So tell me why dental offices are not considered surgical centers too. This is clearly a swift move to manage women's health centers within the city limits, and I find it disconcerting. I find our mayor's commentary offensive. This is not "his city." This is our city. He needs to consider the voices of all the citizens, not just his own voice. He serves our city at the discretion of our votes as do all our council members. They need to remember to listen to the entire public and not just a few select voices.
MKB July 10, 2013 at 09:34 AM
@Sharon Chang, abortion is (minor) surgery the same way that vasectomy or dermatological mole removal is (minor) surgery, but those are just two examples of minor surgeries that are not and need not be regulated as if they were equivalent to quadruple bypass. In fact, abortion is an even MORE minor surgery than those two procedures, in that those two do require a scalpel incision, but abortion does not. Further, by every accepted scientific measure, abortion is safer by many times than carrying to term and delivering, yet that's a thing that "small government" advocates still manage to allow women to do in their own homes! So while your comment is a beautifully concise textbook rendition of the antichoice rationale for laws like these, the reality is that that rationale doesn't actually stand up to five minutes' scrutiny. Fairfax City ought to be ashamed of itself.
Scott Silverthorne July 10, 2013 at 09:38 AM
I want to apologize for my poor choice of words. I realize some of City residents are indeed members of state and local organizations. However, I've stand by my belief that this actually creates more accountability, not less. For example, the Clinic was NOT allowed to relocate within the City limits based on the previous Code. Now -the city council would be forced to hear the issue through an SUP process - a process which didn't exist until last night.
Sharon Chang July 10, 2013 at 09:43 AM
The subject of dental offices keeps coming up. Frankly, I don't know if all dental offices (i.e., those that specialize in regular dental maintenance and sometimes perform a certain level of oral surgery as well as those that deal exclusively in heavy-duty oral surgery) are classified and regulated in the same way. Nor do I know that this matters in terms of a valid comparison. I can think of no good reason why any surgery that (unlike dental or cosmetic surgery) is undertaken for the expressed purpose of ending at least one of two lives should not be considered "heavy-duty," and should not be protected by every possible safeguard for the physical health of the patient.
MKB July 10, 2013 at 09:53 AM
Ah, there it is. "Ending at least one of two lives." But go on, Sharon, do tell us some more about how this is just a routine matter of zoning patient safety. Your ideology is not showing itself AT ALL. Cough, cough. Again, on the safety of abortion: The CDC reports that legal abortion results in 0.64 deaths per 100K abortions: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6108a1.htm?s_cid=ss6108a1_w While deaths related to carrying to term number 15.5 per 100K births http://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/MaternalInfantHealth/PMSS.html For those of you who are as math-challenged as you are science-challenged, that works out to be a 24 TIMES greater risk of death when carrying to term than when having a legal abortion. But yes, by all means: safety first. Cough... cough.
Fairfax Resident July 10, 2013 at 10:32 AM
I think that Mayor was well spoken and on target when he stated that he didn't appreciate people from outside the City coming in protest. I know that there were a lot of non-City residents in attendance. I support the new measure because it is important that facilities that perform medical surgery adhere to strict measures to ensure the safety of the patients. Isn't that what this is about?! Ensuring the safety of people? All people? And to MKB - abortion results in nearly 100% of deaths - to the baby. Oh, and I know a doctor who can fix that cough of yours.
Sharon Chang July 10, 2013 at 10:33 AM
MKB, you may need to take something for that cough. Anyone's ideology is a matter of opinion; that abortion is a form of surgery undertaken for the expressed purpose of ending one of two lives is a matter of fact. Coughing at me in print won't change that fact--and gets into the kind of ad hominem attack mode that I'd hope anyone so well versed in math, science, and presumably other academic areas as well, wouldn't feel at all proud of attempting.
Shannon Duffy Daniels July 10, 2013 at 12:12 PM
I attended the meeting. This quote by the Mayor was DEAD ON: “I don’t appreciate some of the outside groups here tonight, such as NARAL (National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League of Virginia), parachuting into my community and spreading misinformation. I’ve seen the emails, and I’ve had to call several reporters and television reporters to address them,” he said. “This vote is not about abortion." In my 35 years here in the city, I've encountered no disruption or threat to my health and welfare. Please take away the stump for state and national politics. If your concern is for this city and the welfare and health of our community, let's start contributing by understanding land use and zoning. Then maybe you will pick other battles.
Catherine S. Read July 10, 2013 at 12:44 PM
"People outside the city" is also code for "people not like us" - the city clique that sits on the boards, commissions, council and in staff positions and dictate how life will be here Mayberry. As for taking away "the stump for state and national politics" let me point out that citizens of Fairfax City are also citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States of America. And "politics" are how we impact the quality of CITIZENS' lives from Capitol Hill to the local school yard. This process of open discussion and going before the City Council with objections to proposed policy changes are the foundation of Democracy. And if people watching this unfold don't hear the echo from 50 years ago of civil rights marchers who met the same resistance in Mississippi, you aren't paying close enough attention the arc of history.
Richard Tammaro July 11, 2013 at 04:39 PM
Maybe the Gosnell trial opened some eyes and the mentality now is to avoid the possibility of it happening somewhere else. As our president said after the school shooting "if it saves even one life". Better to err on the side of caution.
Childlike Wonder July 11, 2013 at 07:29 PM
Stombres, DeMarco, Greenfield, Drummond, and Silverthorn--thanks! Now I know who I will NEVER vote for. Welcome to the wrong side of history.
Jennifer van der Kleut (Editor) July 11, 2013 at 07:54 PM
Childlike Wonder - just to be fair, Mayor Silverthorne did not vote either way in this matter, as the mayor of Fairfax City is not actually a member of the council, he is elected separately and therefore does not vote.
Rachel Lowder July 11, 2013 at 11:37 PM
I heard about this well-hidden meeting through a friend! Couldn't get the straight dope from the friend, so I went digging. Researched the issue, the facts are pretty clear to me. Thank you Mayor Silverthorne for at least not pretending to be someone you aren't. I value honesty in a person, that way I'll know how to vote when re-election time comes. I hope that you are enjoying public service and being a mayor just as much as your father did.
Joseph Harmon July 12, 2013 at 09:35 AM
Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to me that the Council was attempting to make the SUP process more open and transparent. No matter what side you support on the abortion issue, I'm not sure how more openness is the wrong answer.
Shelby Duffer July 12, 2013 at 10:30 AM
I was at the meeting Tues & gave public comment AGAINST the zoning change. I identified myself as a resident of Farifax County, because my Fairfax City employer had not given me permission to testifiy on their behalf. I work in OBGYN care & my city resident patients will be significantly negatively impacted by this change. The city has gone to much effort to carve out a new zoning category specifically to regulate 'medical clinics'. Mind you, medical 'offices' like doctors/dentists and true outpatient surgical centers/hopspitals were already considered separately. This contributes to 'big gov't' by creating extra regulations for a specific niche group. Women's health clinics see patients by appointment and provide preventative health care as well as some medicines and minor sugerical procedures. Private OBGYN offices also see pt by appt, provide health care, medicines and minor surgical procedures. Gastroenterologists do the same. So do dentists. However, the women's health clinic is the only one that will have new strict regulations. The medical & surgical abortions provided at clinics are safer and have fewer side effects than a D&C after miscarriage, removal of fibroids, colonoscopy to remove colon polyps, or some complex oral surgeries. But the providers of these other procedures work in routine 'offices' and poor women must get treated in regulated 'clinics'. From a biological, scientific viewpoint, removal of an early pregnancy is the same as removal of a polyp or a tooth and should be regulated by the gov't according to its objective safety requirments. The presence of the office itself does not create any greater parking, traffic, or property concerns as the other types of routine medical offices. So I cannot understand why the city felt the need to create, out of thin air, a new zoning category. I agree that abortion, birth control and other reproductive care provided at routine OBGYN offices and women's clinics have a different EMOTIONAL impact than other types of medical procedures. Those emotional and psychological issues are dealt with depending on one's own moral, spiritual and sometimes religious background. But that is not the type of impact that the city is pretending to regulate. As for making the SUP process more transparent: A routine OBGYN office goes has to submit some permits, prove it meets code and then assumes it will be able to open. A women's clinic must now pay over $4500 for a permit, submit to extensive paperwork and review, wade thru redtape for over 6 months, submit data like the 'max number of volunteers present on the property', and have parking levels determined 'by other factors' by zoning staff BEFORE coming to a vote of the council. So after 6+ months of work they might still be denied. This sounds like a perfect way to ensure that no women's clinic would ever get set up inside city limits again. A legal loophole method to make it much more difficult to provide legal safe medical care to city residents, without having to openly vote on abortion.
Shannon Duffy Daniels July 12, 2013 at 11:00 AM
Yes, Joseph Harmon, this hearing opened up the SUP process so that future applications were not subject to decisions of staff only. Members of the public who were heard were there to advocate abortion rights. I think it was confusing at best.
Catherine S. Read July 13, 2013 at 10:30 AM
This change takes PROCEDURAL decisions based on defined classifications and regulations and opens it to a VOTE by elected officials as to their subjective opinion based on "undefined" non-regulated factors such as . . . complaints by people who object to having a "medical facility" in their own backyard. I go back to the struggle over The Lamb Center and the lengths to which the City was willing to go (to the Supreme Court of Virginia) over zoning issues for a facility that caused great contention in this city. Handing over to a VOTE of elected officials the decision as to what is or is NOT a particular kind of "medical facility" almost insures that pressure from the "voters" who pack the council chambers will result in the "Not In My Back Yard" crowd pressuring their elected representatives to deny that special use permit on whatever vague undefined grounds the council sees fit to use: noise, traffic, parking . . . potential protestors. There is a movement across this country - in states and in the federal government - to bar women from exercising their Constitutional right to access a particular type of healthcare service. TRAP legislation is designed to close facilities and basically eliminate provision of these services as the alternative to rolling back Roe v Wade. And it's been successful. Every single day more restrictive legislation is passed. To say there is "no connection" between what is happening all around us and the Council's vote to grant itself the power to decide what is a "medical facility" and whether a "special use permit" will granted is to turn a blind eye to reality. You only have to look at the history of the Lamb Center and the players involved in that ongoing struggle to forecast what the future will be for any "medical facility" seeking a "special use permit" from City Council.
Patrick Le Floch July 13, 2013 at 10:43 AM
FYI SUP=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategic_Urban_Planning
Catherine S. Read July 13, 2013 at 11:06 AM
SUP = Special Use Permit
ACS July 23, 2013 at 12:57 PM
Oh my goodness... I will NOT allow this one vote to define our fine councilmen and woman. The City of Fairfax is a wonderful blend of small town within a big metropolis. Our elected officials live within the City, send the kids to the schools within the City and are members of the community. They make decisions based on the best interest of the City and their neighbors. I offer those who are now turning their backs on these officials to look back over their voting record and see ALL of the great accomplishments from urban planning, to utilities, to the schools and infrastructure, etc... And also keep in mind that this vote was made not on abortion rights but on City citizen's rights to have a say in businesses that come into the City.

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