As Fairfax County Blight Abatement Coordinator Christine Sadar walked around the yard, she assessed the situation. From the looks of the furniture in disrepair in the carport, junk blocking the front door and trash strewn around, it was apparent this house in Mount Vernon was affected by hoarding, where an owner collected miscellaneous junk through the years until the property became an eyesore.
"All this stuff's going to go," Sadar said. "I'm going to work with the homeowner. It could take a long time. She signed a consent order, the house is salvageable."
Soon, a bus full of inmates from the Fairfax County Sheriff's Department pulled up, along with another truck full of lawnmowers and several supporting staff members. It's part of the county's blight abatement program aimed at quality-of-life issues by cleaning the neighborhoods.
"We are committed to enhancing the environment and quality of life for the citizens of Fairfax County," said 1st Lt. Stacey Kleiner, chief of the Community Services Branch at the Office of the Sheriff.
The inmates, whom Kleiner described as "nonviolent, low-risk offenders," immediately grabbed rakes and spread out over the yard, cleaning up trash and debris. Sadar took the homeowner aside to see what she wanted to do while the others worked. The house once had a fire, which led to the property’s being condemned. The owner, who lives near Front Royal, had stayed in the house the night before the cleanup team arrived.
The yard work took just over an hour, and the next step was to decide what the owner wanted to do with the property. The house next door was up for sale, and from the real-estate brochures, it was listed at $375,000. Thomas Overocker, chief of the Department of Housing's Housing Rehabilitation Department, was on-site as well.
"They're just going to clear the outside," Overocker said. "We're hoping she'll sell it. We could take the property by eminent domain. Our objective is to work with the homeowner to resolve the situation."
Working with the homeowner takes a tactful approach, and that's where Sadar comes in. She acts as a social worker as well as enforcement.
"I'm going to work with the homeowner. It could take a long time," she said.
THE BLIGHT ABATEMENT program was created in 1996 by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to improve the quality of life around the county and to help elderly and mentally challenged homeowners resolve their situation with property that has fallen in disrepair. The program operates through the Department of Housing and Community Development. Since 1996, the program had also fallen into a state of disrepair, before Overocker was put in charge and Sadar was moved over from her position with the Fairfax County Police Department.
"She and I are just getting the blight program going again," Overocker said.
According to Department of Housing and Community Development Web site, a property falls under the definition of "blight" if it is vacant or boarded up for at least a year, has been the subject of complaints, is no longer being maintained for useful occupancy and is in a dilapidated condition or lacks normal maintenance or upkeep.
Once Housing and Community Development identifies the property as potentially blighted, it inspects the property and conducts a background investigation. Contact with the owner is the next step. If the issue can't be resolved that way, the property is referred to the Neighborhood Enhancement Task Force (NET) to determine whether it meets the definition of blight. A plan is then mapped out to resolve the situation.
The Board of Supervisors conducts a public hearing and adopts an ordinance declaring the property a nuisance, and the plan is carried out through Housing and Community Development. The owner is charged for the costs of abating the blight, including county staff times and overhead costs.
BLIGHTED PROPERTIES are a countywide problem and are not limited to low-income areas. Assistant Fire Marshall Doug Emerson was at the Mount Vernon cleanup project and noted another property in Vienna he recently encountered. The property belongs to an 80-year-old man whose wife passed away last year and the yard has been turned into a collecting spot for sporting goods, vehicles and other junk. In addition, there are six vehicles, five of which are fully loaded with stuff.
"If he's got one golf bag, he's got 80 golf bags," Emerson said. "I'm working on a warrant. His wife died about a year ago, it's that grieving process."
With someone that age, hoarding could have a historical background.
"When you have people that were raised in the Depression era, that's their mind-set," Emerson said.
Over in the Crosspointe community in Fairfax Station, there is an abandoned business that's caught the attention of the county blight program. It is on Silverbrooke Road next to a shopping center. Jarod Wilson is a driver at a pizza delivery business next door.
"It's been a vacant building for a couple of years. It's nothing great to look at. If I lived around here, I'd probably be upset," he said.
A few doors down at the Hidden Oasis day spa, Doug Webster, owner, looked at the property for his business to expand to a free-standing location, "in a dreaming mode," he called it.
He noticed some construction business using the land in 1993, but nothing since. He lives in the Crosspointe community and knows the land values.
"You'd think that the property has a lot of value. In the meantime, it impacts everyone else," he said.
The Mount Vernon property only had two trash Dumpsters on the site, but Emerson's seen worse.
"We have cleared upward of five Dumpsters out of places," he said.
Although there are always hard-luck and sometimes sad stories behind a blighted property, there are some high points of the program. According the Emerson, the program exemplifies teamwork among the various county agencies as well as financial gains. Individuals from zoning, health, sheriff’s office, fire marshal, housing, public works and police all participate in the program.
"It saves the county a lot of money and provides resources to handicapped and elderly," he said.