|Jeff Blackford, director of the Department of Code Compliance, and Rachel Perrott of the DCC.|
At a session on code compliance, staff from the Department of Code Compliance (DCC) talked about violations involving the county’s building codes and other regulations. “Life safety is our top priority,” said Cat Lunsford.
Accessory structures, like a shed, are not allowed in the front yard. A resident can have a storage shed up to 10 by 10 feet in the back yard if it is screened from view. Up to two inoperable vehicles are allowed if there are no other violations.
A commercial business is not allowed in residential districts, although there are exceptions for low-impact services like a piano teacher, in which case a home occupational permit is required.
According to Al Sanchez of DCC, homeowners need a permit for carrying out work on a house, such as finishing an attic or basement, remodeling a kitchen or bathroom, removing interior walls, adding or demolishing a swimming pool, enclosing a carport, adding a retaining wall, and replacing a gas appliance. The permit must be posted on the outside of the house.
Sanchez inspects home renovation projects and building code violations, including electrical and plumbing hazards. If plumbing is done incorrectly, sewer gases can come into a home.
Fire hazards, such as space heaters used incorrectly, too many extension cords, and gas for tools stored inside a house, need to be fixed immediately, said Peggy Delean of DCC. For other building code violations, homeowners are given a year to comply; if the problem still isn’t fixed, it goes to litigation.
Hoarding is a safety issue if egress is block and emergency services can’t get in. Filling one’s home with junk isn’t against the law, Delean said, but there must be a three-foot wide pathway through the house.
The “blight” designation is reserved for “the worst of the worst,” she said. DCC tries to work with the owner to fix the problems, but if that doesn’t work out, there’s a lengthy process resulting in the county demolishing the structure and billing the owner.
DCC does not take action against piles of fire wood or yard waste and does not enforce a homeowner association’s rules. Complaints about loud parties, barking dogs, graffiti, and inoperable or unregistered vehicles in the street are handled by the Police Department, not DCC.
Complaints can be filed online or by calling the DCC at 703-324-1300. The history of complaints can be searched online. People who file a complaint against a neighbor remain anonymous, even though they should give their names and phone numbers so code inspectors can follow up with them. If someone files a Freedom of Information Act request for code violation documents, the name of the complainer is blacked out, Lunsford said.
After a complaint is filed, an inspector visits the property. It’s rare for an occupant to refuse to let an inspector inside, Delean says; if that happens, the inspector could get a warrant.
If the inspector finds there is no violation, the person who filed the complaint will be notified. If there is a violation, the owner is usually given 30 days to fix the problem, although fire hazards have to be fixed immediately.The owner could be given additional extensions if progress is being made. Ultimately, the issue could go to litigation, which Delean says is expensive and time consuming.
|Animal Control Officer Jessica McLemore, one of many Fairfax County officials who set up information tables in the Luther Jackson Middle School cafeteria during the conference.|
Panelists at a session on community best practices offered advice on how the leaders of community associations and HOAs can bring residents together.
Tina Bluhm, president of the George Mason Forest HOA, said electronic newsletters and websites are good, but “personal face-to-face contact is extremely important.” She visits all new residents, bringing a packet of information, including the neighborhood phone directory, list of nearby shopping places, and a guide to the HOA covenants.
Her HOA also has an email alert system – useful to warn people about traffic problems – a community yard sale, cleanup day, and social activities.
Bob Gangi of the Green Trails community in Centreville, urged communities to set up a free online network with Nextdoor.com. It’s a great way to sell furniture, find a babysitter, or share information about crime and other issues.
Cliff Keenan, chair of the Braddock District Council of Community Associations, said one of the biggest issues on the County Club View neighborhood’s Nextdoor network was whether a large animal residents had seen was a coyote, wolf, or large fox.
Several people in the audience expressed frustration about how hard it is to get residents to volunteer. People are busy and apathetic and only seem to get involved when there’s a conflict.
Keenan suggested having useful events that bring people together. County Club View brought in a large dumpster for “dumpster day” and invited people to dispose of their unwanted stuff. Green Trails brought Goodwill to a community yard sale, so people could donate their stuff right there if it didn’t sell.
Other sessions at the conference covered zoning; emergency preparedness; parking and traffic control; road maintenance; the role of the police in keeping communities safe; Department of Neighborhood and Community Services programs; and community connectedness, including the neighbor-to-neighbor approach to help people comply with county rules and the village concept for helping elderly residents stay in their homes.