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Town to Launch New Inspections

New program would require inspections of rental units in certain town districts.

Three Herndon residential districts will be named in the coming months to be inspected by town staff to make sure they meet state-mandated health, safety and maintenance requirements as part of an initial trial period for what could eventually be a broader rental inspection program.

Herndon community development officials are in the process of determining what districts should be subject to the inspections after Herndon's Town Council voted late last month to update its existing rental inspection program to meet new state laws concerning their implementation. The program, which has been in place since the late 1990s, had never before been used by the town, according to John Orrison, a Herndon building official who is overseeing the program.

The Town Council suggested a trial period of inspections to determine its overall potential benefits, according to council members and town officials.

"The theory behind this program is that it protects the tenants from an absentee landlord ... and unsafe conditions," Orrison said. "It allows the town to make sure that rental homes and units are maintained and that tenants live in good conditions."

THE OLD STATE program was not utilized by the town because it required Herndon officials to label a neighborhood as "blighted," a condition that could reflect negatively on that neighborhood, according to current and former council members familiar with the program. Under the new guidelines, a neighborhood can be subject to inspections based on criteria that include physical deterioration as a result of aging and public safety concerns, Orrison said.

"Once you declare an area as blighted, that's like a heavy hammer, cause all the properties in that area will decline in value," said Vice Mayor Dennis Husch. "You needed to be really careful with that wording. That's the nuclear option."

Former Herndon Mayor Mike O'Reilly, who had examined the possibility of implementing the old program during his tenure as both a council member and mayor in the early 2000s, said that it was dismissed due to its perceived lack of benefits.

"Every time we came to take a look at this program, we felt that it was just wrought with problems," O'Reilly said. "We couldn't see how it would benefit the town to label an area as blighted ... and devote extra staff time to that."

BEFORE INSPECTIONS can begin, Herndon staff will have to suggest three districts that should be inspected to make sure they meet state safety standards, according to Orrison. Those districts will then need to be approved by the Town Council during a public hearing.

The owners of those rental properties will then be given 60 days notice to register their properties for inspection with the town and Herndon officials will begin to notify tenants of the inspections, Orrison said. Those landlords will need to pay fees for the inspections that could total as much as $100 each, he added.

The inspections, which will focus on items such as working smoke detectors, proper structural stability and unbroken windows, will be completed by existing staff members, Orrison said. Any non-compliance would be reported to the property owner and would need to be corrected and confirmed safe in subsequent inspections, he said. Only in the cases were public safety is in immediate danger will tenants be required to relocate, he added.

Once the inspections have been completed and a unit is deemed compliant, another inspection would not be required for four years.

The program would not initially require additional staff unless it is expanded at the order of the council, Orrison added.

"The advantage is also to the landlord in the sense that he will know whether his unit passes or fails," he said. "So he will know what shape his property is in and what he might have to do to improve that property and his investment."

SIMILAR PROGRAMS mandated by the state have also been in place in other municipalities in Virginia over the last several years and have had success, according to officials in the cities of Fairfax and Winchester.

"We've seen a lot of progress, places being fixed up, made nicer," said Sherry Starliper, a code enforcement inspector for the City of Winchester, where in 2004 the program was implemented. It has since expanded to more than double in the size of its staff and monitor more than 3,000 rental units, she said.

The rental inspection program for the City of Fairfax, in place since the mid-1980s, is inactive as it is currently being redrafted after the new state-mandated rules were passed, according to Gene Lynch, property maintenance inspector for the city.

"I think it benefits any community when you have a program in place to make sure that property is maintained," Lynch said. "Certain this affects the community's property values ... and when you're going around making sure people are living safely, it only works in the community's favor."

THOSE REASONS WERE the driving force behind implementing the program for some of Herndon's aging districts, said Mayor Steve DeBenedittis.

"I think that there are some neighborhoods that it could help ... we might even see some neighborhoods that will want it," DeBenedittis said. "We have some neighborhoods in town that are deteriorating and they could benefit from this program."

The possibility of the program also made sense to Harlon Reece, who has served on Herndon's Town Council since 2000.

"When you're talking about the health and safety of folks in the town, I'm willing to try it," he said. "Ensuring public safety is just about the most important role that a town government has in the lives of its residents."