UPDATE, 2:30 p.m.: The Fairfax Board of Supervisors decided this morning to not even consider the “Footloose Bill.” Supervisor Mike Frey (R-Sully) said it would be sent back to the planning commission for revision, with a goal of rehearing before the Supervisors “before August.” So the restaurants hosting more than 150 square feet of dancing get at least a four-month reprieve. See you back here this summer.
ORIGINAL POST: How much dancing can you do in 150 square feet? You can’t swing, you can’t salsa, you can’t even mosh. And when the dance fans of Fairfax County heard there was going to be a legal limit of 150 square feet on dance floors inside restaurants, they rose up with a fury not seen since Kevin Bacon’s speechifying and jumping around in “Footloose.”
Tuesday afternoon, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors will consider an ordinance which says, If you’re a restaurant, you’re not a dance hall, and your dance floor shall not be bigger than 150 square feet. Dance halls go through a separate permit and inspection process. (Which permit costs more than $16,000.) And Fairfax felt like a lot of restaurants took advantage of the lack of regulation, pushed the tables to the side and erupted in late night dance riots, to the detriment of neighbors, police and nearby businesses.
It’s a legitimate concern. But Fairfax dancers reached out to both county supervisors and members of the planning commission en masse. And when the planning commission took up the matter Thursday night, they recommended the county take a pass. One commissioner after another said it was the wrong way to address the problem. Now, all indications are the supervisors will do the same. Still, the board can think for itself, and dancers are planning on showing up in droves.
The Post’s Freddy Kunkle has covered this well, looking first at Fairfax County’s desire to rein in unpermitted dance clubs, which Hispanic clubs felt targeted them unfairly, and then in this blog post last week. The Latino clubs feel unfairly targeted.
But Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee) told me the first complaints he got were about a Chinese restaurant which turned into a dance club at night. It was hardly the only restaurant in the county to diversify its functions.
It’s not the dancing itself that is troubling the authorities. It’s the scene. The overflow parking into the neighborhoods. The rib rumbling bass sounds. The occasional fisticuffs. Police had to station officers near busy clubs in order to respond quickly to the expected trouble of the night, McKay said, and that created a public safety problem by drawing resources away from other areas that might need them.
It was also a fairness issue to other businesses, particularly restaurants, who lose their parking and maybe their business while abiding by the law and watching the nearby taqueria become Studio 54 II. “An established use is an established use,” McKay said. “If you want to go above and beyond, you should have to go through the process to make sure it fits into the community.”
So the board asked the county staff to devise a solution. Their solution: Smaller dance floors, resulting in smaller crowds, resulting in smaller problems.
But the dance crowd sprung into action through Facebook, social media, and e-mailing the various boards. They pointed out that there are many, many dance floors in Fairfax County that do not require police and fire marshal attention. Elegant places. Swinging places. Shagging places. (Shag, the dance.) Places that would be forced to fold up their parquet if the ordinance passed.
Tom Koerner, a longtime Fairfax resident and dance instructor, said that “Dancers (to no one’s surprise) are a diverse community and only a very small segment of that group managed to get the zoning folks to create a solution that constitutes overkill. I’ve been dancing socially since 1976 and never thought I’d see a ‘Footloose’ scenario played out in Fairfax County.
He added, “The logic that large dance floors lead to unruly mobs is unfortunate. We have weekly dances at Glen Echo’s Spanish Ballroom with 500-800 dancers and not once have we had any behavior issues. In addition, we have had a few dances at the new Sherwood Center in Fairfax City (Glenn Miller Orchestra, Daryl Davis Band) and, again, over 200 dancers at each event without a single problem.”
Koerner said, “Obviously, the issue is alcohol.” He said if alcohol beverage control folks monitored venues more closely, that would work much better. “It would be tragic if Fairfax got a reputation of being hostile to the dance community.”
The dancers hope the board takes a step back and considers other ways to address the problems that impromptu dance clubs create. That’s what the planning commissioners recommended Thursday night.
“No other jurisdictions regulate the maximum size of dance floors,” Commissioner James R. Hart said. “Some regulate the minimum size.” Hart and others said they didn’t see how limiting the dance floor size fixed the larger problem.
Supervisors Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) and John Cook (R-Braddock) declared Monday they will not support the current ordinance. We’ll see if a majority of the board joins them and tables “The Footloose Bill.”