Monday, October 16, 2006

Rubbing Manassas the Wrong Way

The Metro section of Monday's Washington Post offers an illustration of how zoning laws and other business regulations can be used by government to disfavor certain individuals and groups because of characteristics unrelated to merit. In this case, the disfavored individual is gay and black, but he could just as easily be a Republican in a heavily Democratic community (or vice versa) or a Catholic living among Rome-as-Whore-of-Babylon Bible thumpers, or a Jew almost anywhere.

The article, by reporter Nick Miroff, begins:

In the past three years, the Manassas City Council has received two applications for home-based massage therapy businesses, and members have approved both. Then Howard Daniel, who is gay, applied.

The backlash against Daniel's request began last month when nearly two dozen people, many of them members of a local church, spoke in opposition to it at a public hearing. When it came time for the city to decide on Daniel's application the next week, council members balked and voted instead to consider changing the city's zoning laws.

The council's decisions to approve two applications and deny one cannot all be based on merit. After all, as WRC-TV reports,
Howard Daniel is a former Marine Corps reservist who is also a certified massage therapist. He wants to open the business in his home, but almost two-dozen Manassas residents have spoken out against his application.

Daniel already offers his massage therapy services at the local hospital and in the homes of clients.
Neither can the denial stem from opposition of Daniel's neighbors, which would be a legitimate reason to deny an application for any home-based business, even an accountant or a dog groomer. A WRC reporter interviewed some of the neighbors:
Most of Daniel's neighbors seem supportive of his business plan, News4's I.J. Hudson reported.

"If anybody was going to have a service like that here, I think he'd be one of the people who would uphold the integrity of the neighborhood very well," Paul Thomas said.

Daniel's neighbor, Don Quick, said people in the neighborhood are fine with the home practice and that the complaints are coming from people from other parts of town.
It's not difficult to understand that opposition to Daniel's business application is based on raw bigotry. One of his supportive neighbors, according to the Post, found an anti-gay slogan written on his car. It is particularly suspicious that Daniel's supporters come from his own street, while opponents come from other parts of the city and are, in fact, strangers to Daniel and his nearest neighbors.

Council member Jackson Miller, who is running for a vacant seat in the House of Delegates in a special election on November 7, finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Miller, a Republican, had voted to approve the applications of the two other home-based massage therapists, which any pro-free enterprise legislator would be expected to do. But to approve Daniel's application risks offending the anti-gay voters who will make up a significant fraction of his base of supporters. He doesn't want to drive away voters by appearing "soft" on homosexuality, no matter what level of personal tolerance and integrity he possesses.

The fact that the Manassas city council is considering a change to its zoning laws rather than permit a gay man to operate a home-based business reminds me of what happened a few years ago, when the federal Equal Access Act, which was written to assure that religious clubs were treated equally by government school officials and allowed to hold meetings on campus and recruit members, was invoked to permit gay-straight alliances (GSAs) the same access.

In response, a number of school districts around the country simply eliminated all extra-curricular activities (except sports, of course) rather than give gay students a chance to assemble and speak at school.

I don't want to lose sight of my larger point, however.

That is, we should be alert to the fact that zoning ordinances, eminent domain powers, business licensing, and other local regulatory authorities can be used to persecute and punish individuals based on their political beliefs and activities, their religion and sexual orientation, or merely because they are disliked personally by certain public officials.

These powers should be circumscribed as much as possible to prevent their misuse and abuse, and citizens should be watchdogs against cases like Howard Daniel's in Manassas.


Greg L said...

You're failing to mention two significant points from the television broadcast: Jackson Miller didn't even know this guy was gay until sometime after the Council meeting, and he always approves these when the neighborhood is supportive. Jackson said on camera that four neighbors did not want this business on their street, and the television reporter actually interviewed one of these folks on camera for the report.

I know it's easy to try to wrap this all up into "Manassas is chock-full of bigots", which is not the case at all and the television report plainly showed it isn't. Just because Mr. Daniel thinks he's the victim of bigotry doesn't make it the case. You're being sloppy, and selective in the parts of this story you're willing to acknowedge.

I wrote about this case the day after the Council meeting, but apparently Jackson Miller's desire to give this man an answer to his request in an expeditious fashion rather than punting to the Planning Commission has been ignored as an inconvenient fact that is contradictory to your preferred portrait. Your characterization of Manassas, and of Jackson Miller is wrong.

Rick Sincere said...

Can you explain, Greg, the anti-gay vandalism against one of Mr. Daniel's supporters?

Can you explain why the opponents who showed up at the council meeting came from outside Mr. Daniel's neighborhood?

Do you dispute my point that zoning and land-use regulatory authority can be abused by government to the detriment of disfavored citizens?

Also, I was careful to point out that Mr. Miller may have "personal tolerance and integrity" but that political considerations put him in a difficult position. I never accused him, per se, of being a bigot -- though it is clear that some bigots live in Manassas. (One hopes they are not representative of most Manassas citizens.)

By the way, I could not find your day-after report on the council meeting. Could you provide us with a link?

Greg L said...

I abhor vandalism under any pretext, and I don't know anyone who would tolerate it. I hope they find the asshat that did it and prosecute the hell out of him. Why it happened, I don't know. My suspicion is they haven't spent enough time in Church.

My understanding is that not all of the opposition was from outside of Mr. Daniel's neighborhood. WRC-TV interviewed one of these neighbors on camera, and Jackson Miller said on camera he has heard from a total of four. Mr. Daniel may not be aware of this opposition, which isn't that unusual in zoning and special use permit cases.

Government could potentially be used to harm disfavored citizens, but there's no evidence that is the case here. Mr. Daniel might feel that's the case, but his opinion is only informed by supposition and conjecture. Did any councilmember tell him they weren't going to approve his permit because he's gay? The fact is they didn't even know he was, as far as I can tell.

Article on BVBL is up which provides the link.

Anonymous said...


I would, once again, like to point out that Mr. Daniel's case has *NOT* been referred to the land use committee. Nobody is changing the laws to preclude Mr. Daniels from opening his business. The council has simply ordered the land use committee to review the ordinance that allows home-based businesses. The result of that debate has no bearing on the current application. Mr. Daniels application will be reviewed by the Council under the rules as they existed when he filed his application.


Anonymous said...

I think it's very telling the Councilman Harrover doesn't think that precedent should play a part in this decision.

How bizarre.

See his comments at black velvet bruce lee.

He thinks it is quite acceptable for the city to have approved a multitude of similar residential businesses with similar traffic situations and that that fact should have absolutely no bearing on whether the city should approve THIS special use permit.

Well if you've allowed such businesses all over the city with extremely similar circumstances, then what would be the logical reason for denying THIS business. I don't think there would be a LOGICAL reason, but I can think of a bigoted reason why.