In mid-20th century Fairfax County, farmland and dirt roads became shopping centers and dense single-family home developments, many of which are now showing their age.
Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) hosted her annual spring town meeting, Wednesday, June 20, to unite residents and government in the task of keeping Fairfax County neighborhoods "safe, attractive and vital" — the core mission of the newly created strike teams. What attendees heard was an assertive initiative that officials say will send out a strong message to those who aren’t doing their part.
"In older parts of the county particularly, people are willfully conspiring to break the law," said Gerry Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "There is zero tolerance for willful violation of the law."
In an effort to keep the older neighborhoods vital, the county created two code-enforcement strike teams that began operating June 1. The purpose of the teams, which comprise 15 different county agencies, is to shut down illegal boarding houses and enforce local zoning, building and safety codes. The teams include inspectors from the zoning, building, fire and health departments, and also police officers, sheriff’s deputies, attorneys and other country officials.
Since the strike team’s first day on the job, Friday, June 1, it has already identified nearly 130 properties to investigate, said David McKernan, the operations sections chief for the strike teams.
"There are 47 properties we are [currently] addressing," he said.
On the morning of Wednesday, June 20, the team obtained its first successful inspection warrant and entered a home that was thought to be in violation of the multiple occupancy ordinance. Connolly said county officials have found several boarding houses, and in some cases, brothels, making the issue bigger than just zoning enforcement. That’s why there is a need to "strike back" with the teams, he said.
"This is police department, health, human services, fire department, legal …," he said. "We have to get together and strategize, neighborhoodwide."
And that is what several neighborhoods in the Braddock District are doing, with Bulova’s guidance. Several homeowners and civic association presidents have mobilized to try to encourage neighbors to report violations. Representatives from four Braddock communities were at Bulova’s meeting to discuss the problems in each of their respective neighborhoods.
From boarding houses and unlicensed home businesses, to building illegal home additions and leaving construction debris scattered around, the older communities are suffering.
Some neighbors have complained but have received little or no response from the county, said John Cook, president of the Kings Park Civic Association in Springfield.
"A lot of people have zero confidence that the laws are being enforced," he said.
BUT SOMETIMES what looks like a violation isn’t one. Just because something looks out of place, doesn’t mean it is, said Bulova. Many people don’t know the details of the laws, both the violators and those who report suspected violators, Connolly said.
"Most people don’t move here and say, ‘hey, I want to get a look at that ordinance’," said Connolly.
David Ellis, the planning section chief, said the teams are conducting a full examination of the code-enforcement system, "from top to bottom." The teams are looking at the organization, structure and the current policies and practices of enforcing the laws.
"We need to make calling in easier for folks," said Ellis. A major strike team goal is "to have a flexible and adaptable code-enforcement system that communicates with the community and can get out and solve the problems quickly."
And the teams have a lot of energy to implement this, said Beth Teare, assistant county attorney and a strike team member. She explained to Braddock residents at Bulova’s meeting that the delays some of them may experience are a part of the process. Complaints need to be investigated and proved in court and then there are time frames for violators to comply or appeal. The court also has a time frame in which it must act on an appeal and scheduling and holding a trial can take six to nine months.
Cook is leading up a pilot program in the Braddock District though that he hopes will restore confidence in the government’s enforcement of the laws. In 2005, about 12.4 percent of county zoning complaints were in the Braddock District, according to the county data from the Department of Planning and Zoning. In 2006, Braddock complaints accounted for about 11 percent of the county total. The department expects a decrease this year based on current numbers and trends, said Mike Congleton, senior deputy zoning administrator.
And it’s not just willful violators that are scheming to run boarding houses, some of the accidental violators just need a little help, said Cook. The 45-year-old Kings Park community is feeling the pains of aging, he said, and elderly people who live in some of those older homes might not have $50,000 to spend on a new kitchen or roof. Those residents need a little help, which is what Bulova hopes to accomplish via the strike teams and the pilot program led by Cook. She hopes to provide incentives for people to reinvest in these communities, such as low-interest loans for renovations and possibly stricter laws within the civic and homeowners associations.
"Anyone is welcome in our neighborhoods, so long as they respect the harmony of the neighborhoods," said Connolly. "Nobody gets to take over that harmony and destroy it … but we also need to protect the victims who don’t know any better."