Manassas Ordinance Raises Cries of Bigotry

Manassas Assistant Fire Marshal Victor Purchase and interpreter Adriana Vallenas look over lists of residences that may violate city ordinances last month. City officials say a new zoning rule redefining
Manassas Assistant Fire Marshal Victor Purchase and interpreter Adriana Vallenas look over lists of residences that may violate city ordinances last month. City officials say a new zoning rule redefining "family" is intended to prevent crowded living conditions. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 1, 2006

Robin Croft has never protested anything, isn't part of a liberal group or a conservative group or any other group, really. He's a 47-year-old artist who grew up in southern Virginia and lives in Manassas and who finds a new city ordinance so outrageous that he was moved to act.

So he wrote up a sign expressing his inner feelings as concisely as he could -- "Manassas! Thanks for helping to revive Virginia's BIGOTED PAST! Find a constitutional way to address illegal immigration!!" -- drove to city hall and, for a couple of hours around noon Friday, stood out in the cold holding it up, a slightly uncomfortable protest of one.

"I'm a private person," Croft said as cars whizzed by. "I hate doing this. I despise coming out and putting myself in public view. But it just bothered me. . . . It's the same thing that was done to blacks, only it's transferred to another race."

Although no one stood with Croft in protest Friday, activist groups are lining up to oppose the rule, and one organization has called for a Justice Department investigation of possible violations of the federal Fair Housing Act.

The ordinance, adopted by the city Dec. 5 and modeled on one in Herndon, changed a definition of "family" in the zoning code so that, essentially, households are restricted to immediate relatives, even when the total is below the occupancy limit. With a few exceptions, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and other extended relatives do not count as family in Manassas anymore. For instance, six cousins living in a six-bedroom house would be illegal, even though the number does not exceed the occupancy limit.

City officials said in statement Thursday that the ordinance was aimed at combating crowding.

"The City views residential zoning regulations as a covenant with citizens who purchase property in the community, and our actions honor this commitment," the statement said. "The suggestion that changes in the zoning ordinance reflect any other intent on the part of City government are absolutely false."

However, Vice Mayor Harry "Hal" Parrish II last month explained the rationale in broader terms, saying that it was in part aimed at the larger problem in Manassas of illegal immigration, which some city officials and residents blame for problems such as parking and strained school budgets.

The rule is being enforced when people complain to the city and, overwhelmingly, complaints so far have been against Latino families, a city official said.

Under the city's former zoning ordinance, about 400 people were relocated from June 2004 to June 2005; under the new rule, that number is expected to rise by about 100, officials said.

Some legal experts say that an ordinance targeting illegal immigrants could withstand a court challenge, but others have said that what Manassas has enacted is constitutionally dubious. They point to a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a similar ordinance in the city of East Cleveland, Ohio, on the basis that it violated 14th Amendment protections of family and privacy, among other reasons.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia has said it is "strongly inclined" to challenge the ordinance. Two other organizations -- the National Fair Housing Alliance and the Equal Rights Center -- said Friday in a joint statement that the ordinance is "clearly discrimination based on national origin and family status."


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