After months — maybe even years — of constant “harassment” from an anonymous neighbor, North Highlands resident Mary McCutcheon had enough, as did the rest of the community.
On Thursday, McCutcheon organized a neighborhood meeting in front of her house — in the small community just north of Rosslyn — to discuss a neighbor who was constantly calling Arlington County to report supposed violations of zoning codes in local yards. It was enough of an issue that even County Board Chair Libby Garvey showed up.
“The county enforces some of the property maintenance and zoning codes in response to complaints and almost never in a proactive way,” McCutcheon told ARLnow.com. “This wouldn’t be bad except it effectively deputizes the small number of complain-o-holics around town with a great deal of power.”
Over the last couple of years, McCutcheon has constantly battled Arlington County over her plants. The owner of three properties in the neighborhood, she has received numerous violation notices as a result of complaint-driven code enforcement. In a letter to the editor sent to ARLnow in 2014, McCutcheon described in detail an instance in which an Arlington County inspector deemed her in violation of a weed-related ordinance following a complaint.
And she’s not alone. Someone, it seems, does not like the aesthetics of other nearby properties, either. And neighbors are fed up with it.
“Finally there is a critical mass of people who have been complained about,” she said, of the meet. “We have approached the County Manager and the County Board and the higher-ups in zoning and code enforcement.””
Some 20 neighborhood residents attended the meeting, along with Garvey and the county’s new Resident Ombudsman, Robert Sharpe.
At the meeting, McCutcheon displayed the offending items including her overgrown rose bushes, a fence surrounding the property and a small library she kept in front of her home.
“I think that complaint-driven code enforcement has so many inherent evils that we must put an end to it,” said McCutcheon. “We must have codes in this county that are enforceable and will be enforced and are worthy of being enforced, otherwise rewrite them. When code is enforced capriciously like this, I hope the county stops accepting this type of complaint.”
Garvey seemed sympathetic, agreeing that the code should have room for interpretation in situations where the perceived violation is not a threat to safety or other people’s property.
“There are situations where things should apply where they shouldn’t and there ought to be a way to exercise judgment,” said Garvey. “This property is beautiful but it doesn’t fit the narrow definitions of what we have had. I’m not sure what the solution is because I can’t say we’re not going to enforce our code but maybe there is a way of giving the code a little judgment or some situational awareness.”
McCutcheon was not the only one there who experienced the passive aggressive wrath of an anonymous resident.
One resident mentioned an incident where her babysitter received an threatening letter from an anonymous source due to her parking her car in the wrong location. The letter contained profanity and other threats and it was signed “The County Board.”
McCutcheon claimed the harassment began after she took down a white mulberry tree that was on public land near her house. The white mulberry is known to be an invasive species, crowding out native species. After removing the tree, McCutcheon says that a particular neighbor immediately became hostile, claiming that the tree was the only thing blocking his view of townhouses in front.
After the initial event, she described how this neighbor — a particularly grumpy British man — would become increasingly aggressive and rude to her in later encounters on the street. Soon after, she began receiving calls from county officials about the complaints, which she assumed came from the same person.
“One time I was walking my dogs and he was walking backwards just to scream at me. I was so scared I wrote a letter to Adult Protective Services but I never sent it,” said McCutcheon.
Other residents shared their own experiences, suggesting that the prickly Brit was the source of the complaints.
While she was describing the chronology of events, the neighbor in question exited his house and quickly became upset with the gathered group. He also began aggressively questioning the presence of a reporter, an ARLnow.com intern, and threatened to call the police after another resident tried to intervene.
Sharpe arrived soon after, temporarily defusing the situation as he took the man aside to discuss the issue.
After speaking with the man, Sharpe recommended that for the short term, McCutcheon comply with the directives to trim her rose bushes in order to avoid further conflict while the county comes up with a more permanent solution.
The mystery, however, deepened after the meeting adjourned.
In a later email, McCutcheon notified ARLnow that after speaking with Sharpe, it was confirmed that the neighbor was not, in fact, the source of the complaints.
“[He] is still a nasty man,” McCutcheon said. “But it is someone else who is complaining.”