The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors this week approved an ordinance to regulate group homes in the county. The ordinance was approved on a vote of 7 to 2.
Of the approximately 20 group homes now in the county, 11 of them would have to be reviewed by a special citizen committee and obtain a permit to operate, according to Fairfax County Zoning Administrator Philip Yates.
The new law defines a group home as a setting with five to eight residents that provides "assisted community living" for persons with physical, mental, emotional, family or social difficulties.
Adoption of the ordinance follows a controversy this summer over a group home for six emotionally disturbed children in the Ravenwood Park section of the county. Protests by residents, who said they were not aware the home was in their neighborhood, led to a decision by the Board of Zoning Apeals in July that the home was violating zoning laws because its residents did not constitute a family.
This fall, Yates served a citation to the Ravenwood Park home for violation of the zoning law. On Nov. 13, Fairfax Circuit Court ordered the number of residents to be reduced to three. Now the home, operated by Environments for Human Services of Northern Virginia, may apply for a permit to increase its number of residents under the new procedure.
Only 11 of the 20 group homes in the cause they have characteristics similar to the Ravenwood Park home, such as rotating supervisory staff rather than live-in houseparents and more than four residents. Most of the nine group homes that won't have to be reviewed are operated by the country or already were reviewed through public hearings as public facilities.
The new law, which was first passed on an emergency basis three months ago, sets up a nine-member citizen committee, which has six months to develop guidelines for reviewing group homes.
Public hearings and establishment of "neighborhood advisory councils" would be provided during each review of a group home, the law says.
"This (ordinance) is certainly worth a try," said Supervisor Alan I. Magazine, reflecting the majority opinion of the nine-member board. "It's a reasonable way to approach the whole issue of group homes."
Board Chairman John F. Herrity and Supervisor Audrey Moore voted against the ordinance, saying that group homes should be reviewed by the Board of Zoning Appeals rather than under a separate procedure.
"The citizen review process only lengthens the time to get a permit," said Moore. "The BZA makes decisions like that and it's shorter."
Under the ordinance, the citizen review committee has 40 days to make a recommendation to the zoning administrator on the location a group home, and the zoning administrator has 60 days to make a decision. His decision can be appealed to the Board of Zoning Appeals, and later to Circuit Court.
No permit would be granted for longer than two years at a time under the new law. The zoning administrator also can revoke a group home permit if the home is found not be operating within the law during annual or semi-annual reviews.