|Panelists at the Town Hall on Code Compliance included (from the left): Susan Epstein and Rachael Perrott of the Department of Code Compliance, Deputy County Executive Robert Stalzer, DCC Director Jeff Blackford; and attorney Beth Teare.|
Residents got a chance to vent their frustrations directly to county officials at a packed town hall meeting Feb. 6 at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School organized by the Mason District Council of Community Associations.
Local residents begged county officials to step up their enforcement of code violations. “We need help,” said MDC Chair Mollie Loeffler. “I’m ready to pack up and move,” said another resident who had complained repeatedly about a parking problem on her street that has not been resolved.
Neighborhoods in decline
Another resident, Kay Cooper of Lake Barcroft, said the DCC’s complaint-driven approach isn’t working. Zoning codes, especially those involving overcrowding are not enforced, which is leading to parking violations and trash piling up—resulting in a general decline in the area. She called for a coordinated effort involving the Board of Supervisors, police, and state government, as well as the Department of Code Compliance (DCC). “We’re getting a sense that this isn’t a high priority,” she said.
Deputy County Executive Robert Stalzer, who oversees code compliance issues, promised to continue the dialogue and search for solutions. “We want to talk to you all about what we can and can’t do and how we can do it,” he said, while agreeing to drive through the community with residents and see the problems first-hand.
“I want to talk about the strategy of what comes next. I don’t want to make promises we can’t keep,” Stalzer told the audience.
Loeffler outlined the results of an online survey conducted by MDC over the past few weeks and read some quotes from respondents describing their difficulties in getting code complaints resolved. (The Annandale Blog published some of those quotes Feb. 3.)
The survey drew 528 respondents. Here are some of the key findings:
- Sixty-eight percent of respondents who filed a complaint with the DCC said the complaint was not satisfactorily resolved.
- When asked to rate their overall satisfaction with DCC’s enforcement of county laws and ordinances, only 8 percent said they were satisfied. Forty percent were not satisfied, and 25 percent were somewhat satisfied. (The rest didn’t file a complaint or didn’t respond to the question.)
- The top reasons given for the lack of satisfaction (based on respondents’ comments) were lack of follow-up by DCC; residents of an overcrowded home told investigators they were part of the same family; the violator went back to the same behavior after the DCC investigator determined the property was in compliance; DCC investigators aren’t available to work weekends or evenings; and weak laws and regulations.
- More than half the respondents said they had never filed a complaint with the DCC. When asked to give a reason, 46 percent said they felt it was a waste of time, 37 percent said they were concerned about retaliation, and 35 percent said they didn’t know how to file a complaint.
- The zoning code violations residents are most concerned about are multiple occupancy/overcrowding, parking issues, and property maintenance.
- When asked how zoning violations affect their neighborhood, the most frequently listed impacts were property values, quality of life, pride in the community, a sense of community, and crime rates.
- Eighty-seven percent of respondents said they feel unresolved zoning violations have a negative impact on revitalization.
He told the audience that people who file complaints can look up the status of the case online. He advised people to make sure they give the pertinent details when they file a complaint, including the full address, a complete description, and what time of day it occurs.
If a code inspector observes a violation, a notice is sent to the owner setting a deadline for the problem to be corrected, said Susan Epstein of DCC. If it’s not fixed, it’s referred to the county attorney’s office—and that process takes time.
A member of the audience asked why so many of these cases are determined to be in compliance when the violation clearly is still in evidence. Another resident said she’s complained numerous times about a house occupied by three families, plus additional people who pay to sleep in the basement for a night, with at least 10 cars. She’s gotten no follow-up from DCC, while the house is listed in compliance.
Someone else spoke about a ranch house on Whispering Lane with seven bedrooms and two bathrooms occupied by 22 adults and an unknown number of children.
Blackford advised people who fail to get feedback to contact the inspector’s supervisor. Rachael Perrot, of the DCC, said, “sometimes we don’t understand what you’re seeing or have a hard time getting in touch with them.” She urged residents to provide as much detail as possible.
Several people cited problems involving cars—including inoperable vehicles, cars parked in yards, commercial vehicles in residential areas, cars with expired tags, and cars parked for months with out-of-state tags. “I don’t want to see a junkyard while driving down the street,” Loeffler said.
The car issue is complicated because DCC deals with parking on the grass, while parking problems on the street are matters for the police. Epstein noted that while cars aren’t allowed on front years, they are permissible on the side or backyard if they have proper tags.
Capt. David Smith, the new Mason police commander, offered some clarification. Members of the military are exempt from some of those rules, and the law is confusing in terms of what is considered a commercial vehicle. He said police have issued plenty of parking tickets in Mason—6,000 in 2013—but don’t have the authority to write tickets for cars parked in driveways; that is a DCC issue.
One resident recounted a frustrating experience of reporting a commercial truck in a driveway to DCC. The owner then moved it to the street, where the police ticketed it. It was then moved back the driveway, so she filed another complaint with DCC. “If I were you, I’d be ticked off as well. We’ll look into this,” Stalzer said.
Another audience member asked whether it’s possible to submit photos as evidence of overcrowding, commercial trucks, or other problems. Photos can be sent as email attachments to the DCC but that isn’t an option on the online complaint form. Stalzer agreed to look into changing the form.
Beth Teare, an attorney for the county, said photos can be used as evidence in court if the complainant is willing to show up in court—but not if the person wants to remain anonymous. Photos are helpful for the DCC, even if they can’t be used in court, Epstein added.
The town hall was about more than just airing complaints, though. The MDC is looking to work with county officials to improve the complaint process and seek positive solutions to reverse the conditions leading to neighborhood decline and a deteriorating quality of life.
Ideas for improvement
Loeffler asked county officials to comment on the ideas for improvement suggested by survey respondents, although the meeting went on so long, there wasn't time to address all of them:
- Ticket and fine violators.
- Increase the amount of follow-up by investigators so they stay in touch with complainants until the problem is resolved.
- Encourage investigators to be proactive, to investigate violations they observe, rather than just respond to complaints.
- When they investigate overcrowding, code compliance officers should check IDs to determine of occupants are part of the same family.
- Have investigators work on weekends and nights.
- Add an education/community outreach component to increase awareness of zoning codes.
- Encourage the creation of neighbor-to-neighbor groups that urge people to voluntarily comply with zoning ordinances.
- Consider incentive pay or bonuses for outstanding code compliance investigators.
Under the zoning ordinance, no more than one family plus two renters—or four unrelated adults—may live in a house, although it gets a little complicated when defining “family.” There are also building code regulations that restrict how many people can sleep in a bedroom.
IDs can be fake, Blackford noted. “Our investigators take great pains to try to identify whether people are related. They separate people and ask them questions and compare notes and ask them to draw a family tree.”
Epstein noted that while the core hours for investigators are during the day, they also have the flexibility to check on properties in the early morning, late evening, and weekends. That’s why it’s important for people filing complaints to be very clear about what time they observed the problem and be as specific as possible. “You’re our eyes and ears in the community,” she said.