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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fairfax County officials educate community leaders on property violations

A basement unit

Neighborhood leaders concerned with unsafe and unsightly homes in their communities learned about Fairfax County efforts to address these problems at a session hosted by Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross Feb. 27 at the Mason District Government Center.
Most of the complaints she receives have to do with overcrowding, Rachael Perrot of the Department of Code Compliance, says Rachael Perrot, one of five property maintenance/zoning inspectors in the department.

Some of the signs inspectors look for when they suspect overcrowding are jury-rigged electrical wiring; overloaded outlets; locks on interior doors; dishes, pots, and toilet paper in peoples’ bedrooms, Perrott says. When a house is carved up into smaller units with locked doors and restricted access to other parts of the house, that’s a “huge problem for fire safety,” she says.

The Department of Code Compliance was established last July to replace the former strike teams, which dealt with multiple problems at a single property. The new department carries out the same function, Perrott says, by working closely with representatives of the police department, sheriff’s office, and fire marshal.

When the county inspectors find a property in noncompliance, they write up a notice of violation and give the owners a deadline for fixing the problem, sometimes 60 days, or just 24 hours if there’s a fire hazard. If the problem is not fixed within that time, Perrott says, the case is referred to the circuit court for litigation, and the property owners are usually ordered to pay a fine, as well as fix the problem. Cases involving a health or safety code violation are referred to the general district court, which means they can be resolved faster.

For a property to be declared blighted by the Board of Supervisors, Perrott says, neighbors must submit complaints about it, it must have been vacant or boarded up for at least a year, and it must be in such a state of disrepair that the only solution is to tear it down.

Once a property is identified as blighted, the owner has 60 days to prepare a blight abatement plan, Gross says. The owner is responsible for the cost of demolition. If the owner refuses to take action, the county puts a lien on the property, tears it down, and recoups the cost when the property is sold.

Peggy Delean, also a property maintenance/zoning inspector, showed the audience pictures of a house on Carrico Drive in Annandale (photo at left) with obvious signs of multiple occupancy and other violations. Chairs and equipment from the owner’s failed restaurant were stored in the backyard, the refrigerator was packed with old food, the house was full of trash, and the basement was carved into separate living quarters with no windows.

Violations that affect safety are the inspectors’ most immediate concern, such as overloaded electric outlets, no smoke alarms, no outside egress, and do-it-yourself gas lines. In one case, county officials required a man who was living in a closed up 5 x 5 foot basement unit next to a furnace to immediately vacate. That turned out to be lucky for him; shortly after he left, someone with a grudge against another tenant set the deck on fire, and the man living in the basement would not have been able to get out.

Gross told about one experience she had while tagging along with inspectors at a house on Lebanon Drive in Seven Corners. The fire marshal yelled for everyone to get out immediately when he discovered a camp stove and propane tank with a loose valve in the house; he said it was a “bomb waiting to explode.”

According to Delean, people violate the housing codes for a variety of reasons: Economic circumstances have forced some families to move in together, and in other cases, people simply aren’t aware they are breaking the law. Gross says she has come across “people from other countries who think, ‘this is America, you can do anything you want here.’ It’s a matter of education.”

The zoning ordinance allows up to four unrelated people in a house. A second dwelling unit in a house must have living space, sleeping space, a bathroom, and food preparation space. If occupants are considered boarders, they must have access to the main kitchen.

Under the code, a family consists of any persons related by blood or marriage, but it can get tricky when occupants claim they are cousins. Inspectors do not have the authority to ask for birth or marriage certificates. Tenants have to prove the relationship in court.

You can lodge a complaint about a property in your neighborhood online or call 703/324-1300. You can also look up the complaint history online. 

Master Police Officer George Lopez spoke to the group about how derelict vehicles on private property are handled. Vehicles without valid licenses, registration, or inspection stickers are given 30 days notice. After that, police usually give another 10 days notice, and if the owner still doesn’t comply, the vehicle is impounded. “If the owners are waiting for a part, we’ll work with them,” he says.

“Sometimes we’ll get a call about a car that is dirty with multiple colors,” he says. “As long as it has valid stickers, that is not against the law, no matter how ugly.” If a car is obviously inoperative—on blocks or with no wheels, that is a violation. “But if the car has valid plates,” Lopez says, “I don’t have the authority to ask them to move it forward or backwards.”

He also has no authority to remove a tarp covering a car to see if it has valid stickers. If a car is covered, it must be “a regular car cover,” he says. “A blue tarp is not going to cut it.” Cars with antique license plates don’t need an up-to-date inspection, Lopez says, but those cars can only be driven to and from car shows.

Gross noted that the law doesn’t restrict the number of a vehicles you can have. You can be cited under the zoning law for having a “junkyard,” she says, but if the cars are hidden behind a private fence, that is acceptable.

Complaints about illegal vehicles on private property should be reported to Lopez at 703/280-0716. To learn more about property maintenance issues, come to a Roundtable Discussion March 3 sponsored by the Mason District Council.

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