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Overcrowding Strategy Continues To Evolve

Expansion of overcrowding investigative staff and harsher penalties appear likely in future.

The Town of Herndon is likely to bolster its number of staff assigned to investigate excessive occupancy complaints and increase associated penalties in the coming months.

Under the Town Council's consideration within the next several months will be the possibility of adding an extra part-time and a full-time shift to the town’s Zoning Enforcement Team, bringing the number of total full-time shifts investigating overcrowding from eight and a half to 10 and an added cost of approximately $100,000.

Also under consideration are adjustments to the town’s municipal legal code, which would make it a criminal, rather than civil, offense to own a residential unit deemed to contain too many people for basic safety concerns and would increase penalties on any future owner who repeats these crimes on that property at any point in the future.

These proposals were delivered as possibilities by town staff to Herndon’s Town Council during a "focus session" presentation delivered prior to last week’s town work session.

"If the Town Council wants to begin to strengthen its ability to handle more cases and work quickly in this area [of overcrowding], that was our suggestion," said Henry Bibber, director of Community Development. "If these new positions are filled, we will be able to handle more cases and we hope to be more efficient."

The addition of the new positions to the Zoning Enforcement team would be the latest expansion to one of Herndon’s fastest-growing agencies, capping off an expansion of a department that has quadrupled in size over the past two years.

DESPITE THE INCREASES to staff, a steadily rising level of overcrowding complaints over the past two years have left the members of the Zoning Enforcement team with an incredibly large amount of work, said Bill Edmonston, senior community inspector and the head of Herndon’s Zoning Enforcement team.

The average full-time inspector on Herndon’s Zoning Enforcement team is working on about 40 cases each month, many of which he or she cannot close during that time, said Edmonston. That's why he expressed his desire to see more people added to the team.

While he hasn’t seen raw budget numbers yet, council member Bill Tirrell said that he will do everything that he can as a council member to make sure that the Zoning Enforcement team has the proper resources to help stop overcrowding in Herndon.

"If it’s $100,000 for a few new staff members, it’s worth it," Tirrell said. "My absolute primo issue is overcrowding … and we most be willing to give our staff members every resource we can to help bring an end to it."

DRAFTED TO BE USED as a deterrent and to give the Town of Herndon more power in prosecuting repeat offenders of the excessive occupancy ordinances, a series of adjustments to existing municipal laws that stiffen penalties are being prepared by town attorney Richard Kaufman.

Speaking at last week’s session, Kaufman explained how adjustments may be made to make "numerical overcrowding" cases — when too many unrelated individuals are living in a unit designated as too small — from a civil to a criminal offense.

These "numerical overcrowding" cases make up the majority of violations found during investigations, Edmonston said.

Adjustments may also be made so that the Town of Herndon could file an injunction on not just an individual found guilty of overcrowding offenses, but the property where the offense took place, making any future penalties of excessive-occupancy violations associated with that property, regardless of who the owner is, more severe.

Edmonston said that the legal adjustments would help to prevent future cases of dangerous overcrowding. Kaufman could not be reached for comment at the time of publication.

AS THE PROCEDURES of excessive occupancy investigation and prosecution in Herndon are likely to continue to evolve as the town staff becomes more experienced, their ultimate goal will remain the same, Tirrell said.

"I would hope that today is the worst that overcrowding gets in the Town of Herndon," he said. "We want to bring in any available resource to bring down overcrowding so it gets progressively smaller until we are where we were at five or 10 years ago."

Continued progress in the battle against excessive occupancy depends on both community involvement and education and on increased penalties and enforcement, Edmonston said.

When asked if there is a visible end in sight to the spate of excessive occupancy complaints, Edmonston said that it was impossible to make accurate predictions.

"I don't ever want to guarantee a particular result by a particular time," he said. "I think that we can see improvements over time, but whether those come after one, three or five years, that's still left to be seen."