The Fairfax City council voted Tuesday night to create a new term in its zoning law, “medical care facility,” delete the term “clinic” from the current definition of a doctor’s office, and require all medical care facilities to obtain a special use permit at a cost of $4,800, along with a detailed approval process and a final vote by the city council. Pro-choice activists said the move was aimed at keeping abortion clinics out of Fairfax City, including an existing clinic in the city which was trying to relocate to meet Virginia’s new hospital-style zoning standards for abortion clinics.
Clinics in Fairfax City currently are classified in the same part of the zoning law with doctors’ and dentists’ offices, able to operate without special use permits or city council approval. Councilman Steven Stombres, whose full-time job is the chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, said decisions on whether medical facilities should be allowed to operate in the city shouldn’t be left to city staff, as they were with standard medical offices. “I ran because I want to be the one that makes those decisions,” Stombres said. “I know people feel there’s another agenda here. It’s not my agenda.”
City officials said they wanted to create “clarity and predictability when categorizing the various medical uses” of facilities in Fairfax. “Clinics are regulated as a type of office and are permitted by-right in all commercial districts,” zoning administrator Michelle Coleman wrote. In the new ordinance, “clinics were removed from the definition of an office use and now fall within the medical care facility definition. That change was made because of similarity in land use characteristics between clinics and the other uses within the new category.”
Here is the definition Fairfax City drafted, then approved Tuesday:
“Medical Care Facility means any hospital, urgent care facility, surgical center, or similar use. Medical Care Facilities shall not include a physician’s or dentist’s office.”
From the mostly full council chamber, 17 people rose to voice opinions on the proposed change, and all 17 opposed it. Some were Fairfax City residents, some lived elsewhere in Northern Virginia, some were representatives of Planned Parenthood or NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. A college student from George Mason University said she and her friends obtain health services unrelated to abortion at NOVA Women’s Healthcare, the current clinic in Fairfax City. A pregnant woman said she wanted to have her baby at that clinic. A woman who said she worked in the Fairfax County Health Department for 30 years said, “This is clearly political and has nothing to do with women’s health. The goal is to restrict access to health care.”
The council seemed troubled by the short, perhaps vague new definition of Medical Care Facility. Councilmember Eleanor Schmidt asked Coleman if Lasik eye surgery would require a special permit. “That’s a complementary service provided by a doctor’s office,” Coleman said, so no permit. Councilmember Jeff Greenfield asked if a doctor doing a colonoscopy would require a permit. “I think that’s outpatient,” Coleman said, so no permit. No one asked Coleman specifically about abortion clinics.
Councilmember Michael DeMarco said, “Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t see this in any way being politically motivated. I don’t see it in any way limiting access to health care.” Councilmember David Meyer disagreed, saying, “To single out this particular activity at this time, I don’t believe is appropriate and I intend to vote against the motion.”
Councilmember Daniel Drummond said, “From my perspective, it’s really a zoning amendment. It allows you the public to have a voice in where medical facilities are located.” But he felt the wording was vague, the public comments had raised good points, and he made a motion to defer the vote until the law could be tweaked. No one seconded his motion.
When the vote was taken, Stombres, Drummond, Greenfield and DeMarco voted yes. Meyer and Schmidt voted no.
City resident Lisa Whetzel, executive director of the Our Daily Bread food bank, testified against the law and said afterward, “I’m disappointed because I feel like they singled out this medical facility.” Noah Mamber, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood, said that 93 percent of his organization’s services, including a clinic in Falls Church, didn’t involve abortion. He said that Virginia’s newly created rules requiring hospital-quality facilities for abortion clinics “will force abortion providers to move, and then local ordinances such as these will effectively ban them from their towns, meaning these providers will be stuck and have to close and a Virginia woman needing to terminate a pregnancy will have nowhere to go.”
Alena Yarmosky of NARAL said the goal of the Fairfax law ostensibly was to create objective criteria for what is or isn’t a medical facility, but instead the council will have only the vague law and “then they can vote on it. They want it to be a political issue.”