|It was standing room only at the Mason District Town Hall.|
More than 250 people came out on a rainy night for the Mason District Town Hall to engage in a dialogue with Fairfax County officials about the problems they see as leading to a deteriorating quality of life in the Annandale/Mason area. Among the problems addressed were litter, boarding houses, non-existent redevelopment, overcrowded schools, speeding, and loitering.
“We’re here tonight because we care out about our community, and we want to see some changes,” said Mollie Loeffler, chair of the Mason District Council of Community Associations (MDC), which organized the Town Hall. The Annandale Blog and Annandale Patch co-sponsored the event, which was held at the Annandale United Methodist Church.
The panelists—Mason Supervisor Penny Gross; Capt. Gun Lee, commander of the Mason Police District; Susan Epstein of the Office of Code Compliance; and School Board member Sandy Evans—were asked to address the top concerns of Mason residents as identified in a survey conducted by the MDC.
According to the results of the survey, completed by 662 residents, the most pressing concern is the physical condition of area businesses and roadways (cited by 71 percent of respondents). It was followed by speeding in neighborhoods (70 percent), boarding houses (65 percent), traffic congestion (63 percent), infrastructure (63 percent), crime/daytime breakins (60 percent), property maintenance (58 percent), snow removal (58 percent), lack of business development (57 percent), and gangs (55 percent). When the results were adjusted to exclude people without children in the schools, the quality of education moved up to the number-four concern with 67 percent.
At the Town Hall, quotes from the survey were projected on a screen and posted around the room. Regarding property maintenance issues, one respondent wrote: “I have a concern that apartment buildings in Culmore are turning into boarding houses . . . with multiple families in one apartment. . . . This type of boarding house arrangement is not good for the community, schools, or the local infrastructure.”
Another survey respondent wrote, “Cars are parked in neighborhood yards which diminishes my property value.” And someone else wrote: “Mason is deteriorating in appearance and cleanliness. I’m embarrassed to have friends and family visit my home because they have to drive past my neighbors who park their cars on their lawn.”
Susan Epstein, code compliance supervisor with responsibility for Mason, said her office is complaint-driven. Inspectors check out a house when they receive a complaint; they don’t drive around looking for code violations.
|The panelists (left to right): Capt. Gun Lee, Supervisor Penny Gross, code compliance official Susan Epstein, and school board member Sandy Evans.|
When her office receives a complaint about overcrowding, inspectors go to the house, talk to the residents, look for suspicious signs, like a coin-operated laundry machines or a chore schedule on the wall, and determine if there is a violation. If there are too many cars parked on the grass, they determine if any are stolen. She urged people to call her office (703/324-1300) to report a violation, or fill out an online complaint form. “The more details you can provide the better,” she said.
A question from the audience about why Mason District is number-one in multiple occupancy incidents was met with loud applause. Epstein said the number of complaints and repeated violations in Mason has actually been decreasing.
Gross turned the issue around, responding that Mason has more complaints “because we have an enlightened and educated district. People pay attention to zoning violations. They know what to look for and report problems.”
Karen McClellan, Epstein’s supervisor who was in the audience, said there are complaints about multiple occupancy all over the county. “The reason you see a spike in Mason is because you have an educated community willing to report things.”
Code compliance inspectors don’t have the authority to ask for identification; only the police can do that, she explained. “When we go to a property, we do a lot of background work. We have to litigate people on the deed of property whether they live there or not. . . .We have to talk our way in.”
When asked why the Strike Team was terminated, Gross said it was created by pulling people from several agencies to focus on property and zoning violations, and that worked so well that the county created the Office of Code Compliance to carry on that effort. “It’s working much better than the strike team; it’s a full-blown department now.”
Comment after comment in response to the survey expressed peoples’ frustration with property maintenance issues, Loeffler said. People are frustrated about calling the code compliance office and not seeing results. .
Gross said the Board of Supervisors is working on raising the fines for code violations and that something on this should be announced this spring. When these cases get to court, it’s up to the judge, not the county, to impose a fine, she said, and it’s frustrating when a judge doesn’t impose as large a fine as the community wants.
Several quotes from survey respondents complained about the poor condition of commercial areas. For example, one person wrote: “Because of the poor appearance of businesses in Annandale, my property value is diminished. People I work with know of my community as unclean, old, and deteriorating. I’m embarrassed.”
“Signage is predominantly in Korean with little to no business signs in English,” someone else wrote. “This situation creates a very strong impression among the community that non-Koreans are not welcome to patronize the business.”
“We do not control the content of signs,” Gross responded. “The content of signs is considered to be speech, and that is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.” Gross said she has worked with the Korean community to encourage them to have at least some English on business signs.
“We’re taking more of a personal, voluntary approach to making sure people take pride in their businesses,” Gross said. When it comes to safety issues, such as a blocked entrance, that is a zoning violation and can be addressed by officials.
Sandy Stevens, who lives near Columbia Elementary School, said, “the Annandale business area looks terrible,” with broken curbs and other problems, and noted that other commercial areas, like Vienna don’t look so bad.
“It’s not just the responsibility of government. It’s a partnership with the community,” Gross said. She urged people to get involved in community clean-up efforts.
Broyhill Crest resident Eileen Garnett noted that the Annandale Central Business District Planning Committee monitors the streetscape improvements funded with a 1988 bond and works with the county, VDOT, and Dominion Power to get things fixed when needed. She urged people to keep an eye out for problems and report broken streetlights to Dominion and report potholes to VDOT.
Gross noted that there were some exciting proposals to redevelop Annandale a few years ago but the market crashed before they could start, and there are some interesting ideas in the works, including a new Dunkin Donuts. The visioning task force created last summer to come up with recommendations for Seven Corners “is going to have a tremendous effect,” she added.
With that effort going on in Seven Corners and new things happening in Bailey’s Crossroads and Annandale, “we’re poised for private enterprise to come in do things for Mason District,” Gross said.
Regarding littering, Jennifer Cole with Clean Fairfax, said people can report litterers to her organization online, and she will pass on the information to the police. Litterers will receive a letter telling them they’ve been caught doing something illegal. People who litter could be subject to a $500 fine and a year in jail, but they have to be caught in the act by the police.
When asked about daytime break-ins, Capt. Gun Lee said there’s been a 9 percent decrease in overall crime in Mason District, but property crimes, which includes burglaries, have risen 13 percent in the past year.
Regarding crime prevention, Lee said, “We can’t do it alone. We need help from you.” He encouraged residents to get join a Neighborhood Watch group and come to meetings of the Mason Police District Citizen Advisory Council.
One member of the audience complained about people loitering along Little River Turnpike. Lee acknowledged the police has received a lot of calls about loitering, but said, “many of these people are looking for honest work so they can support their families and their loved ones. Unless there’s a violation of the law I don’t think there’s anything we can do.”
“We are sensitive to the need to balance law enforcement versus harassment,” Lee said. “If someone reports a criminal violation, we’re absolutely going to deal with that. If someone is standing on a corner not doing anything, that is not a crime.”
In response to a question about sex trafficking, prostitution, and safety issues, Lee cited the police unit he established to monitor businesses where there have lots of complaints about things like fighting, drunkenness, and sex offenses—and that has resulted in several businesses being shut down. “When it comes to prostitution and sex offenses, we need to put in every effort possible to deal with that,” he said.
Gang activity is down, Lee said, and keeping youths out of gangs is “not just an enforcement issue. It’s about education. It’s a parent issue and a community issue.”
Carol Turner, a resident of Ravenwood Park, complained about the loitering and trash on the pedestrian bridge over Route 50 in Seven Corners, adding “people are afraid to cross it.” Lee said police are monitoring the area and suggested citizens organize a clean-up effort and Neighborhood Watch group there.
In response to a complaint about speeding, Lee called it an ongoing issue that he tries to manage every day, with both a full-time officer assigned to enforce traffic laws and the rest of the 120 officers under his jurisdiction.
In one neighborhood in Annandale, where people were concerned about speeding, Lee sent four to five officers to conduct “blitz-style enforcement,” he said, and “that made a big difference.”
Nick Burns, of the Sleepy Hollow area, complained about speeders on Sleepy Hollow Road, and called for the speed limit to be reduced from 35 mph to 30.
Changing the speed limit is the responsibility of VDOT, Gross responded, noting it took 12 years to get VDOT to reduce the speed limit on a stretch of Columbia Pike from 45 to 35.
Another resident said he’s been complaining about speeding Wayne Drive for over 50 years, and now that Mason Crest Elementary School was built near there, he is concerned that somebody’s going to be killed. Lee promised to send officers “starting tomorrow” to watch for speeders. Gross urged residents to work within their communities to get support for traffic calming measures like speed humps.
School board member Sandy Evans spoke about the problem of overcrowded schools in Mason District.
Noting that there at 1,328 students at Bailey’s Elementary School, Evans said, “that is a stunning number.” There are as many kindergartners at Bailey’s, 256, as there are in a small elementary school. “Bailey’s is 130 percent over capacity, and they are using every inch of closet space, and Glen Forest is almost as bad,” she said.
There is money in the Fairfax County Public Schools’ capital budget for a new school in Mason, but the location hasn’t been decided. Two sites are under discussion, the Willston Multicultural Center in Seven Corners and Glasgow Middle School. Evans said she liked the proposal for creating classroom space at the Wilson Library. “We thought we had a good plan but the county said no. It’s off the table.”
“Now we’re looking at building on Glasgow,” Evans said. “It’s not a great plan. But our backs are to the wall. We don’t have a specific plan.”
Why not build a new school on the Willston site? a member of the audience asked. The building is owned by the county, and there are a number of county programs at Willston, which would have to move, Gross said. Also there is a consent decree with the Department of Justice that calls for the county to either bring the building into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act or raze it.
According to Gross, the Willston Center “is not a good location for a school.” A new elementary school costs $29 million, she said. “We only have one opportunity to do it. It’s got to be in the right place because it’s going to be with us for 20 or 30 years. It’d rather give it enough time to do it right and not rush into it. We need to look for the right location.” She suggested the possibility of having a separate building for the upper and lower grades.
Suzie Phipps, chair of the capacity committee for Bailey’s said a solution is needed now, otherwise her 4-year-old, and other Bailey’s children, will be in a trailer throughout their school careers. “The county has land available,” she said, and “Willston would be the ideal location” for a true community school that provides a range of services to families.
“It has to be a thought-out process,” Gross countered. It will take two or three years to resolve the Justice Department issue. “We have to find a location that works. And right now the Willston Multicultural Center doesn’t not work.”
Evans said she plans to talk about using the Willston site for a school at the March meeting of the Seven Corners task force. She also said she is working on getting Falls Church High School the renovation it desperately needs.
Michael Gates of Parklawn, asked Gross to put pressure on the AT&T lawyer, who promised to hold another community meeting on the proposed cell tower at the Parklawn pool. Gates, a member of a group opposed to the cell tower, said the first meeting was cut short and AT&T failed to deliver on information they promised to provide to the community.
AT&T amended its application but hasn’t filed it with county yet, said Gross, who acknowledged, “We’re having trouble getting information from them.” The proposal was scheduled to come before the Mason Land Use Committee in February, but that won’t happen unless there is another community meeting before then.
Michele Bryce, a physician from Bren Mar Park, asked Gross to do something to stop VDOT from constructing a ramp on I-395 near the Landmark area. She said VDOT failed to conduct an environmental study as required by law that analyzes the impact on the local community. An independent study found the increased traffic will result in dangerously high levels of air pollution.
“What’s really scary is you can shut your windows and lock your door and they still get in your house,” Bryce said of the toxic air pollutants identified in the study.
Gross said the ramp is a state project, “so questions need to be addressed by the state. According to the information I have from VDOT, they conducted an environmental assessment as required by law, and the Federal Highway Administration reviewed it and approved it.” She said federal officials found the emissions from this project are within allowable levels, a statement disputed by Bryce.
“It is a state project. The county has nothing to do with it,” Gross said. “All we can do is make sure you have the right people to talk to at the state level.”