The Manassas City Council and mayor voted 4 to 3 Monday evening in favor of sweeping changes to the city’s zoning code — changes that opponents said could threaten the survival of the city’s sole abortion clinic.
The proposed updates to the city’s decades-old zoning laws contain an amendment that would require medical care facilities, including abortion clinics, to obtain a special use permit that would be granted only after a period of public comment and City Council approval.
Advocates for abortion rights say this permit would be nearly impossible to obtain considering the city’s overwhelmingly Republican council. Opposing the measure Monday were the council’s lone Democrat, Ken Elston, the council’s only woman, Republican Sheryl Bass, and Republican Mark Wolfe.
Mayor Harry J. Parrish II (R), who delivered the tie-breaking vote approving the zoning changes, is running for a state Senate seat. This was a preliminary vote; a second vote is scheduled for May 11.
Typical dentist and physician offices would not be subject to the zoning change. Opponents of the change said there was no medical reason for abortion clinics to be subjected to it, either. They said the zoning change was a veiled effort to restrict access to abortions.
Parrish said the proposed ordinance, which does not include the words abortion or women’s health care, was not intended to target women’s health facilities. He noted that Amethyst Health Center for Women, the clinic currently providing abortions in Manassas, would not be subject to the new regulations.
That would change if the clinic decided to relocate or make significant renovations expanding its space — in which case it would need a special permit. Any new abortion clinics that want to open in Manassas would also need such a permit.
“Many people are going to suggest that it is going to be looked at politically. I really don’t believe that at all,” Parrish said. “I don’t think it’s up to me to decide whether there is an abortion clinic in Manassas.”
In 2013, the Virginia Board of Health passed controversial regulations for abortion clinics in the state that would require them to undergo renovations and meet new building requirements similar to hospitals.
Advocates have said repeatedly that the rules are unnecessarily onerous — and intended to restrict access to abortion in Virginia.
When Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) took office, he ordered that the regulations be reviewed. In the meantime, many of the state’s 18 abortion clinics, including the one in Manassas, were granted temporary waivers from the rules.
When the waiver lapses, Amethyst Health Center for Women would need significant renovations to comply with state standards. Those renovations could require a special use permit from the city if the proposed zoning ordinance goes into effect.
“Women in Manassas and women across the state deserve to be able to access comprehensive and affordable reproductive health care,” said Anna Scholl, the executive director of ProgressVA, a liberal organization that supports abortion rights. “Politicians should not be in the business of interfering with personal decisions.”
This isn’t the first time that a Virginia municipality has amended zoning laws in a way that could restrict access to abortions. In 2013, an abortion clinic in Fairfax City, the busiest clinic in the state, closed after the City Council amended its zoning ordinance to similarly require clinics to acquire a special use permit and get council approval. The clinic, NOVA’s Women Healthcare, was trying to relocate when the council passed the ordinance.
“You will not be able to spin this vote as a nonpartisan zoning vote, unrelated to abortion, that did not target abortion providers, no matter how hard you try,” Noah Mamber, an attorney who works with the Washington region’s Planned Parenthood, said in a prepared statement in front of the council.
Dozens of activists, including Mamber, delivered a petition to the mayor’s office before the vote Monday evening urging him to strike the controversial ordinance from the zoning code update. After the vote, there was a public comment period during which people could speak on the proposed zoning updates. At least a dozen people, on both sides of the issue, signed up to comment.