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Neighbors Ask For Help

Overcrowding raises safety concerns.

What can be done when single family homes become overcrowded and multiple vehicles or other items take over what used to be front lawns and back yards?

Those were some of was the questions posed to county officials Monday night by members of the Spring Bank Community Association.

Meeting at Groveton Baptist Church, 20-plus members of the association sought the advice of Fairfax County zoning and environmental health representatives in combating what they viewed as a deterioration in their neighborhood's quality of life due to multiple families occupying residences designed for single family use. The answers they received were more social-oriented than regulatory.

"There have been a fair number of changes in home ownership in our area. And, there have been concerns about how these new residents are keeping their properties and how many are living in a single home," said David Dale, association president.

"We hear stories about gangs moving in, crime increasing and other adverse changes. What do we need to do and what can be done by the county to combat this?" he asked the county representatives.

"It's very difficult to deal with illegal occupancy. Nobody has to let you into their home to verify who is living there and what their relationship is to one another," said Michael R. Congleton, deputy zoning administrator, Zoning Enforcement Branch, Zoning Administration Division, Fairfax County.

"It's not the burden of the resident to prove the relationships. Family is defined in the zoning law as anybody related by blood or marriage," he said.

"We deal with many problems on a daily basis and we are stretched pretty thin. We have only 17 inspectors to cover the entire county with over one million population and 375,000 residences. This breaks down to about two inspectors for each magisterial district," Congleton said.

Mount Vernon District has a population of approximately 110,000, according to Congleton. "We deal with about 300 to 400 complaints per year in this district," he said.

ONE OF THE RESIDENTS' main concerns was that they often did not know the proper person or county office to contact regarding a complaint. To answer that concern, Congleton distributed a pamphlet entitled "Neighborhood Concerns and County Services" which gave names, phone numbers an addresses of various agency personnel.

Categories covered in the pamphlet were construction, home businesses, housing, illegal signs, signs on private property,

noise/glare, property management, stormwater, and vehicles. "We have tried to address most of the common neighborhood complaints and who to call in this brochure," Congleton said.

He was accompanied by D.C. Woodward, environmental health specialist for the county, and Rebecca J. Goodyear, senior zoning inspector, Zoning Enforcement Branch.

Woodward informed the members what solutions were available to them from an environmental health aspect. "We are not tied to zoning concerns. We can get involved strictly on a square footage basis of how many people are in a residence based on the size of the residence and the facilities available, such as the number of bathrooms," Woodward said.

Other concerns expressed by association members was work being done within some of the homes involving such things as electrical, gas and plumbing without county permits or inspections. "This could pose a neighborhood wide threat if something goes wrong when they turn on the gas," one member said.

"If there are safety concerns you can call the police and fire departments, particularly the office of the Fire Marshal or Code Enforcement. We are also involved with the County's efforts to control hoarding," Woodward said.

"Perhaps we need to reactivate our neighborhood watch patrols again. That way if someone sees something or someone suspicious they can take some action," Dale suggested.

"I don't think you need to take down license numbers or take pictures. When we (county inspectors) show up on someone's doorstep we want to show up as county employees. If they know they are being watched it makes my job more difficult," Goodyear said.

"There are tell-tale signs about illegal occupancy. But, just because there are 12 or more people in a house that doesn't mean they are necessarily breaking any law," Congleton said.

There are three primary elements to defining over crowding according to Congleton.

1. Too many unrelated people living in a particular dwelling;

2. Establishment of a second or more dwellings within a given unit such as separate living areas in a basement;

3. Proper access and egress from various areas within the dwelling. Small or no basement windows do not meet that standard.

WHEN ASKED how inspectors can identify unsafe or overcrowding situations, Congleton said his inspectors make multiple visits at various times of the day. "We just keep coming back. We are available seven days a week, 24 hours a day," he said. "And, we work as a team with the building inspectors."

As for parking restrictions at private residences, Congleton explained that vehicles can not be parked "on the grass area for no more than 48 hours without being moved." However, if they are moved in that time frame the clock starts over again.

"If you see a tree growing up through the engine block, that's a pretty good sign the car has not been moved," Congleton said. "However, just because the grass is dead under the car doesn't mean it hasn't been moved in the last 48 hours."

Vehicles parked in the street right-of-way do not come under zoning enforcement. "That is a police problem. Call them or Supervisor Hyland's office," he said.

It was Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerald Hyland's office that arranged for the county officials to meet with the association members. "We have a major problem with too many people in a single house. It's also a major issue to be able to determine how many people are actually living in a particular house," Hyland said when asked about the situation.

"The Board of Supervisors has tasked staff to come forward with a way to possibly change the zoning ordinance to deal with this issue. Perhaps zoning inspectors need to be cross trained in health and fire issues," he said. "There are real safety and health issues here."

In the final analysis, Dale noted that, "Perhaps one of the best ways to combat many of these complaints is to get to know your neighbors better. For next month's meeting I'm having flyers circulated throughout the area, printed in both English and Spanish, inviting everyone to come to the meeting and get involved."

Congleton's final suggestion was, "If you had three block parties a year, you'd probably have less problems."