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Evolution of the Hunt for Overcrowding

Recent staff increases mean a half million dollars now spent annually combating excessive occupancy

It started as a single investigator with a general knowledge of Herndon’s zoning code covering the entire town on one, full-time paycheck.

But in the more than six years since its inception, Herndon’s struggle against excessive occupancy has developed from a simple one-man schedule into an award-winning overcrowding investigative authority whose dedicated budget is now well past a half million dollars, according to town figures.

"Back then [before 2000] in most cases, it was simpler," said Lisa Gilleran, zoning administrator for the Town of Herndon. "Every once in awhile you had the resident who would try and hide his inoperable vehicle in his yard, but for the most part, the investigations were fairly straightforward."

But as the tide of overcrowding complaints began to rise in Herndon, so did the complexity of the investigations, including a necessity for an increased attentiveness to details, legal collection of evidence procedures and more involved surveillance efforts, Gilleran said.

What started with the first full-time dedicated zoning enforcement officer to be hired in the town in at least 20 years would in six years grow to a zoning enforcement team staff of 11 full-time employees and one part-time employee, handling the town’s wide range of community inspection investigations, including overcrowding complaints. While only five of these employees are exclusively dedicated to excessive occupancy investigations, all spend at least some of their time tackling the issue.

And the growing may still not be done.

AT THE START of the new year, the Town of Herndon completed a temporary funding transfer, successfully moving budgeted money for two employee positions presently vacant — one at the Neighborhood Resource Center and a non-sworn position with the Herndon Police — to be transferred to zoning investigations for two new full-time positions. The hiring process for these two new positions has begun, and both will include at least a majority of time spent investigating overcrowding concerns, according to Gilleran.

The collective salaries of the zoning enforcement officers, relative to their roles in investigating overcrowding complaints, currently totals around $550,000 according to town finance records. The town’s budget for Fiscal Year 2007 is approximately $45 million.

The group also has a fleet of vehicles available that include three turnover automobiles from other departments that are several years old, as well as two new cars, one leased, according to Gilleran.

The zoning enforcement team wasn’t the only group that had expanded its payroll in recent weeks. A proposal to raise the annual contract for deputy town attorney Manuel Capsalis from about $65,000 to more than $71,000 was made as his "prosecution load has and will continue to increase by the Town’s criminal prosecution of occupancy violations," according to a staff report.

THE INCREASED cost of the zoning enforcement team to Herndon’s budget is the direct result of a combination of factors, including the need to maintain certain residential neighborhoods in town that had begun to age and deteriorate as well as an increase in resident complaints of excessive occupancy, Gilleran said.

While the numbers of both complaints and confirmed violations have been steadily increasing since the start of the new era of Herndon zoning enforcement, it has tapered off in recent months according to senior community inspector Bill Edmonston. It's a result more than likely due to adverse weather than a genuine elimination of the problem, he added.

In the final three months of 2006, there were 43 complaints of potential overcrowding, with 10 found by investigators to be in violation, according to Edmonston.

In that period, complaints found to actually be in violation has decreased from about 50 percent to about 30 percent, he added.

"We’ve been making a lot of progress at a very high level of efficiency, but it’s hard to judge really where we’re at," when it comes to overcrowding, Edmonston said. "We’ll see soon whether this slow down in cases is just a phenomenon from the weather or if it’s the trend we’ll see from here on out."

THE AMOUNT of town resources dedicated to combating overcrowding, while regrettable in that they cannot go towards funding community development projects, are absolutely mandatory in bringing a problem that has been at the forefront of residents’ concerns in recent years under control, said Herndon town council member Bill Tirrell.

"Plain and simple, we need to turn those houses back into single family homes and not multi-person dormitories," Tirrell said. "If we can’t do that, we might as well throw in the towel as far as preserving our community goes."

Calls to Herndon Mayor Steve DeBenedittis for comment on this issue were not returned at press time.

While the current level of zoning enforcement officials, most recently bolstered by the addition of the two new positions, is adequate, Tirrell said that he cannot rule out an increase in more positions if the situation were to demand it.

"I think we have some good staff members in there right now, but if more people are needed, then we’ll dial up and find some more," he said. "We want them to have as many troops as they need to get the job done."

Getting that job done, said Tirrell, a self-described fiscal conservative, takes high priority on his list of resource-necessary objectives.

"When you think about it … It’s a sad way to have to spend money," he said. "But it’s something that we’re going to have to do."

"I just want this out of Herndon."