A task force of Fairfax County officials and church and community groups is expected to recommend that the county government establish three new publicly supported shelters for the homeless.
Only two open-door shelters operated in the county last winter, both run by church groups. They housed hundreds of temporarily homeless residents. In addition, the county already supports two shelters that provide temporary housing for families, but not individuals.
County officials said the recommendation, to be considered by the Board of Supervisors later this month, stems from a controversial new interpretation of county zoning regulations that would restrict activities in county churches, although it apparently will still permit operation of church shelters.
Issued in June, the controversial "Interpretation No. 58" of Zoning Administrator Philip G. Yates attempts, for the first time, to define and restrict activities that can take place in church buildings, listing the kinds of groups that can meet in them and the hours they can meet without special permits.
It also reverses previous county policy and now requires churches to get special permits for future day-care centers in church buildings.
Yates's interpretation has been opposed by many church groups as an infringement on the constitutional rights of churches and the historic role of the church as a sanctuary. It is being appealed to the Board of Zoning Appeals and is set for a public hearing Oct. 16.
The supervisors, who unanimously endorsed the church shelters in January, this summer created the shelter committee, which is expected to recommend creation of the three shelters.
The board also urged church groups and zoning officials to work together to try to come up with an amendment that might resolve the church-state or church-county issue and avoid a fight over the appeal of Yates's interpretation.
The Rev. Vin A. Harwell, whose Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church took the lead last year in establishing church shelters for the homeless in the county, yesterday praised Yates and the county and said they have been supportive and concerned about the homeless.
"On Nov. 5, we plan to open two churches a week on a rotating basis -- twice the number of last winter -- and Yates has assured us that we can go ahead," said Harwell.
"Yates is a top-notch guy who is not conspiring against churches," Harwell said. "He just wants to clarify the vague zoning language about churches and, in so doing, is venturing into territory we believe is forbidden territory under the 1st Amendment."
Yates new interpretation, if not changed, not only will require special zoning permits for the homeless shelters but for every occasion when someone spends the night in a church building and limits certain kinds of day use, Harwell said.
"Mother's-Day-Out programs can be held only once a week, and only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 11 p.m., according to No. 58," said Harwell. "But one Baptist church here now has two Mother's-Out days a week. Is one considered a religious use and one not? . . . The principle issue is whether the county should determine what activities are, or are not, appropriate in churches."
Within the past two weeks, the Presbyterian Synod of the Virginias and of the National Capital region, representing more than 600 churches, supported Harwell and the county churches -- now almost a dozen of the Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist and Unitarian denominations -- that will help operate the homeless shelters.