County Manager Mark Schwartz said he has noticed more residents calling code enforcement with complaints about their neighbors.
At a County Board work session Tuesday with the code enforcement staff, which enforces the county’s noise ordinance, maintenance code and other regulations, Schwartz said that anecdotally, people call to complain as they are unaware of other ways to resolve their issues.
Schwartz said that too often, code enforcement is used as a “cudgel” by some residents unwilling to take their complaints directly to their neighbors. He said that the county must step up to help resolve disputes in a better way.
“There may be room for a more mediation, community relations approach by us as a county and civic associations,” Schwartz said. “There’s a void there in the community.”
Schwartz’s pronouncement came after County Board member Christian Dorsey asked about the extent to which the county’s bureaucracy is used to “litigate personal disputes or issues that are better suited to other realms than the power of the state to enforce things.”
It also comes hot on the heels of the Westover Beer Garden’s continued disputes with the county over its outdoor seating and live entertainment. In 2010, the county stopped music there altogether because of complaints from two neighbors, and is now considering a law change so it can add more patio seats.
But the county’s code enforcement staff said they may have some solutions to help ease the problem, including educating the community on what the department does and what it can help with.
Code enforcement chief Gary Greene said the department has continued to engage in community outreach like attending civic association meetings voluntarily.
Dorsey went further and suggested code enforcement lead “cleanup days” for some of the topics that receive the most complaints, including snow and overgrown plants and vegetation that obstruct sidewalks and streets.
He said the time is right for “those sorts of things that are causing better outcomes in our community, so that we get the sense that code enforcement isn’t the state putting its thumb on the scale.”
Board members seemed impressed by the new initiatives for code enforcement.
“I hadn’t thought of code enforcement as a way to build community, but now I do,” said Board member Libby Garvey.
Brooke Giles contributed reporting.
Arlingtonwood is a tiny, affluent neighborhood nestled near the GW Parkway and Chain Bridge in the far northern corner of Arlington.
Amid what is otherwise an idyllic suburban scene along N. Richmond Street, one house stands out: a low-slung brick home covered in handwritten signs and Sharpie-scrawled writing on the white siding and doors.
“POISONED HOUSE, DO NOT ENTER – KEEP OUT,” reads the writing next to the main entrance. “DO NOT TAKE AND DO NOT REMOVE ANY POISONED ITEMS FROM MY POISONED HOUSE.”
The note goes on to claim that the house was poisoned in 1999 with various “dangerous substances” and that the “poisoning was proved to the FBI and Arlington police including other U.S. government agencies.”
“U.S. President Clinton was informed in 2000 and U.S. President Bush in 2001,” the sign continues.
Needless to say, neighbors are not happy with the signage.
“I have contacted the [county] and Arlington states there is nothing they can do because the signs are on private property,” one resident told ARLnow.com. “These signs affect everyone in the area as this home is stating there are poisonous gases everywhere (in the ground, her house, etc.). People stop all the time and ask if it is safe to be in the area.”
Gary Greene, Code Enforcement Section Chief for Arlington County, confirmed that there is basically nothing the county can do about the signs and writing. He said that the county has received seven complaints about the home in the past 12 years and that the only actionable code violations found — like an overgrown lawn — were corrected by the homeowner, who does not live in the house.
There is one outstanding “minor” code violation, Greene said, but it has nothing to do with the house being vacant or covered with signs. The signs are not in violation of Virginia law or county ordinance, he said.
“The signs, letters and wall writings visible on the front façade of the property were placed there in 2005 by the property owner; they have been a primary driver for complaint calls,” Greene said. “The signs, letters and wall writings are not of a commercial or political nature and have not been found in violation of any of Arlington’s property related ordinances.”
The house, which was recently assessed by the county at $862,500, was nearly auctioned by Arlington County in 2015 for non-payment of property taxes — but the taxes were eventually paid along with a penalty fee and interest, county records show. It is currently in good standing with the tax office after $8,570.16 in property taxes were paid in 2016.
A homeowner in Arlington’s Forest Glen neighborhood says she plans to fight a county inspector’s order that the abundant plant life in her yard be dramatically trimmed.
Lori Brent says her front yard at 665 S. Harrison Street has been a certified wildlife habitat for well over a decade and is beloved by many of her neighbors.
But it was a complaint from a neighbor earlier this year that prompted a county inspector to pay her a visit.
“I found it really weird because I’ve lived here for 15 years and everyone loves my yard,” she said.
Acknowledging that her garden had become “a little overgrown” after she had been away for three weeks, Brent said a “very adversarial” inspector stopped by, called the yard “a jungle” and said “you’ll be getting a letter from us.”
According to Brent, the letter ordered her to trim all of the plant life, even bushes and trees (the county disputes that), to a height of 12 inches. A follow-up inspection, to ensure her compliance, is scheduled for tomorrow (Friday).
Brent, however, said she has trimmed all that she intends to trim, making the yard — which now include Halloween decorations — look “more like a proper garden,” even if it might not meet the letter of the law.
“I cut more than I’d like to… in good faith, to be a good neighbor,” Brent said. “It kills me to get rid of the food sources for the animals before the winter. We can’t have just grass, that’s horrible for wildlife.”
“I flat out refuse” to do more trimming, said Brent. “Frankly it’s against my religion, I’m Pagan. You can’t get me to rid our animal habits and put in cement or whatever they want.”
Arlington County officials, as you might imagine, have a bit of a different story.
“Although, it is not our practice to discuss the details of active enforcement cases, I’d like to provide clarity regarding the issues generated at this particular property,” said Gary Greene, Code Enforcement Section Chief for the county’s Inspection Services Division, via email.
“In 1988, the Commonwealth enabled localities to adopt an ordinance to deal with nuisance conditions like excessive vegetation overgrowth and vegetation that encroaches upon sidewalks and streets,” he wrote. “Where adopted, the legislation has been effective in reducing the nuisances and public health hazards created by biting, stinging and jumping insects, increased pollen litter and harborage for rodents and the vast number of predators that prey on them.”
“Arlington’s Condition of Private Property Ordinance limits the height of grass or lawn areas to not more than 12 inch height, a limit consistent with international standards used to control vector related pest issues,” Greene added. “Our investigation of the complaint at the address provided, affirmed overgrowth in excess of five feet, vegetation encroaching onto the sidewalk and even extended onto county property immediately adjacent to the private parcel.”
Long story short: Brent’s personal Garden of Eden could be an inviting home for a bunch of bad critters, and that’s why the county is on her case.
“The enforcement is not arbitrary or onerous, but it is equitable to ensure public health; and yes, there are considerations for cultivated areas,” said Greene. (Similar enforcement has taken place elsewhere in the county.)
“The County’s issue is public health, not manicured lawns,” he said.
Brent, for her part, is left to wonder why the enforcement is taking place now, even though her yard has been chock full of vegetation for a decade. As far as wildlife, she said the yard is primarily home to chipmunks, rabbits and birds — critters that aren’t going to harm humans.
“My neighbors are all up in arms, they’re so upset,” Brent said. “The situation has been surreal to say the least.”
The following letter to the editor was submitted by Mary McCutcheon, a North Highlands resident.
What is a “weed?” I posed this question to two of the inspectors in Arlington’s Code Enforcement office and was told by both that their definition comes from Webster’s dictionary. Before you continue reading, you should look it up and see for yourself if this venerable old lexicon provides any clear standard. O.K. Are you finished? So now that we know what we’re up against, I want to say that this vague and subjective definition is the basis for Arlington’s property maintenance code and people are getting citations that can incur very material and costly, not to mention invasive, penalties for those who are defiant.
I have a vacant piece of land where I am about to build a new house. Over the summer it became covered with multiple species dominated by Conyza canadensis and bristlegrass, both native meadow species, as well as Tradescantia virginiana, perennial lilies, and Monarda which had all begun to look droopy as their flowering season came to an end. Until construction begins, I thought the land was better off with a cover of vegetation, especially these species which attract birds and pollinators. When I got a notice that I had violated the weed ordinance, I was hurt and ashamed and a little indignant all at once.
I phoned the inspector who had issued me the citation and asked what a weed was. That is when I learned that Webster’s dictionary is the botanical reference book that Arlington County uses (per directions of one of Arlington’s attorneys, I learned). I then asked this inspector if Joe Pye weed, Butterfly weed, and Milkweed were “weeds” and, after a painful pause, he blurted “Ma’am, I’m not an arborist.”
In the meantime, the people promoting native plants and rain gardens are explicitly encouraging Arlington citizens to plant more and more of these “weeds.” Let’s make sure the code is consistent with the policy and protect the residents, as well as the flustered inspectors, from confusion.
Responding to my objection that code enforcement is mostly complaint-driven, the inspector replied that citations mainly result from routine drive-by surveys. When I pointed out that a property only a block away from my property had poison ivy tumbling into the road and porcelain berry and other invasive vines growing all over the chainlink fence and it’s barbed wire top, the inspector replied: “Well, if you want something done about it, you should file a complaint.”
Why do we have such codes in the first place? It is not to keep up an aesthetic standard in neighborhoods, as you might have thought; it is, according to the code itself, only to address health and public safety threats. And, according to the inspectors, “weeds” are more often associated with insects, rats and snakes than non-weeds. The truth is that scorched earth clearing and exposed pools of standing water are most often associated with mosquito larvae; vegetable gardens, bird feeders and exposed food waste are most often associated with rats; and the rocky edges of streams such as Four Mile Run are havens for copperhead snakes.
Home owners should not be denied their property rights without compelling public interest. The remote suspicion that one might possibly imagine that there may conceivably be a non-zero probability that a mosquito, a rat, or a snake lives on someone’s land doesn’t cut it.
Photo by Mary McCutcheon
Reginald Lawson, Arlington Department of Human Services’ supervisor of Adult Protective Services, oversees the department’s handling of hoarding cases, and he has a favorite story he likes to tell from his work.
“There was this person with some severe hoarding going on, and he had to be placed in a care facility,” Lawson said. “This person had such a great support network, they went through as a team and cleared out his place. There might have been one person who organized the clothes, another person went through the refrigerator. It may have taken a month, but the person was brought back to their home.”
Lawson sits on Arlington’s Hoarding Task Force along with staff from the Arlington County Fire Department and Arlington Code Enforcement. The three departments all deal with cases of hoarding throughout the county, depending on what the situation calls for. According to DHS spokesman Kurt Larrick, ACFD responds when there’s a fire hazard or medical emergency, Code Enforcement responds when there’s a building code violation and DHS gets involved if the hoarder has health, psychological or mental issues.
Hoarding entered the popular consciousness largely from the reality television program “Hoarders” on A&E, which documents cases of extreme hoarding and shows interventions to try to get the hoarders to change their ways. The vast majority of hoarding cases, however, are not filmed for TV nor do they often even make the news. There are about 40-65 hoarding cases per year in Arlington alone, officials say.
Hoarding, which is a problem in communities across the country, was thought to be a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder as early as 1980. It was recognized as its own mental health disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders last year.
“When I came here eight years ago, my supervisor was one of the mental health experts on hoarding,” Lawson said. “I thought it was a term that we coined within Arlington County. We used to call hoarders ‘pack rats’ back when I was growing up in Louisiana. At the bare minimum now, people are more aware it’s an issue and a real disorder.”
The Hoarding Task Force was formed in 2003, and Patty Durham, DHS’s assistant director, has served as its chair for the past nine years. She emphasizes that the task force is just a place where representatives from the three agencies get together to talk about the cases they’ve worked, and serves exclusively as an administrative body.
“The discussion we have is sharing information about what’s happened so far in the case, so we know where we’re starting from, then we’re talking about where or when there’s an intervention,” Durham said. “If there’s [mental] competency or not competency, that comes into play. You can’t do things against people’s will if there’s competency. It’s a matter of understanding where the case is and understanding what can be done.”
Hoarding calls typically run the gamut from a false alarm of someone who has an unusually cluttered yard or apartment, to extreme cases where papers, boxes and other items are stacked in every room in the house, blocking doorways and endangering the structural stability of the building.
According to the International OCD Foundation, studies have shown that about 4 percent of the population suffers from hoarding disorder. Larrick said “The line between a messy lifestyle and hoarding is usually crossed when the person’s ability to function adequately is compromised.”
“If someone is no longer able to cook meals at home, if they can’t live safely in their own home or if they pose a safety risk to others,” are indicators that an individual has a hoarding problem, not a clutter problem. “Most people hoard items because they think the items have value and don’t want them to go to waste. Many hoarders consider themselves information junkies so the items they hoard tend to be newspapers, magazines, brochures and other information-rich items. Emotional attachment is the third most common reason for hoarding. Objects can have a sentimental association to important persons, places or events in the hoarder’s life.” (more…)
At issue is a citation received by Seoul Food for violating the 60 minute rule, which police began enforcing over the summer. As noted in a CATO Institute post last week, the food truck owner told police he had moved to a different spot after one hour, but the ticketing officer didn’t believe the truck had moved far enough from its original position.
The Arlington-based Institute for Justice (901 N. Glebe Road) became involved after some of its workers heard about the legal issues while stopping at a food truck for lunch one day. They thought it fit perfectly into the organization’s National Street Vending Initiative, which aims to foster conditions that allow food trucks to thrive.
“We’ve been fighting on behalf of vendors across the nation and wanted to find a way for them [Seoul Food] to continue earning an honest living,” said Institute for Justice (IJ) attorney Robert Frommer, who also represented Arlington doggy daycare business Wag More Dogs in its unsuccessful fight against Arlington’s sign regulations.
Because it’s a criminal matter, the IJ didn’t take on the case itself, but instead requested assistance from law firms in the D.C. metro area that might be willing to work on the case pro bono. Frommer said a number of firms have come forward to assist Seoul Food and possibly other vendors that may be in a similar situation.
Besides fighting the citations, the goal is to work with Arlington County to change the 60 minute rule.
“Food trucks give people with big dreams, but not a lot of capital, a chance to work hard and succeed,” said Frommer. “They do that in a way that benefits the community. Arlington County should recognize that and rescind its one hour rule so food trucks can continue to thrive and serve the community.”
Frommer said workers at IJ believe the 60 minute rule is unconstitutional.
“The 60 minute rule furthers no legitimate government interest in safety. All it does is make the lives of vendors difficult and prevents them from being able to succeed,” he said. “It’s the government’s job to regulate health and safety, but it’s not the government’s job to pick winners and losers. That’s the job of consumers.”
The IJ also believes the penalties for violating the 60 minute rule are too harsh. Per the Arlington County code, “Any person violating any provision of this chapter shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.” A Class 1 offense is the most severe of Virginia’s four misdemeanor classifications and could bring penalties of jail time up to one year and a fine of up to $2,500. Other examples of Class 1 misdemeanors include DUI, assault and battery, possession of marijuana and driving on a suspended license.
County code does not, however, list a specific distance food trucks are required to move after one hour, so it’s up to the interpretation of each officer enforcing the law. According to Arlington County Police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck, officers try to be consistent.
“Based upon how the county code is currently written, our officers use discretion in citing the food truck vendors,” said Sternbeck. “When the officers appear in court, they must be able to articulate a reason why they cited them [the vendors].”
The vendor in the Seoul Food case claims to have been given three different answers as to how far he was required to move his vehicle. Police say the vendor has been given the appropriate documentation regarding the rules on numerous occasions.
Sternbeck notes that police have been “flooded” with complaints about food trucks and officers merely are responding to the complaints. He said officers do not target food truck vendors unless responding to a complaint. A number of brick and mortar restaurants and other businesses consistently call to complain when food trucks are parked in front of their establishments, Sternbeck said.
Sternbeck said officers spent hours going around Arlington to educate the food truck vendors about the rules before enforcement efforts commenced. Currently, vendors are warned on their first offense and ticketed for any incidents after that.
“We have to respond to these complaints and that requires us to sit out there for at least one hour to see that vendors have not moved,” said Sternbeck. “It’s up to the courts once we present the information and facts on it, whether or not they want to proceed with the fine.”
The IJ believes the community will back the efforts to change the 60 minute rule, which could help the initiative gain steam.
“I think the people in Arlington love the food trucks. Every day I go out to lunch I see people lined up. People love choice, they love having the option to decide what they want for lunch,” Frommer said. “When they understand what the 60 minute rule is doing to food trucks, I think they’ll strongly support the reforms we believe the county should adopt.”
It’s National Barbecue Month, and as the weather warms up, more people are firing up the grills. But before getting caught up in grilling, it might be a good idea to make sure you’re familiar with the Arlington County fire code.
According to Arlington County Fire Department spokesman Captain Gregg Karl, problems can arise with people in multi-unit residences, such as condos and high rise apartments, who may not even realize they’re violating the code.
No grills, combustible devices or open flame cooking devices are to be used or stored on balconies and rooftops. Fire pits and similar types of warming devices are also banned. Electric devices without an open flame are acceptable.
Most standalone homes and townhouses with ground level patios are exempted from the rules. However, the fire department still recommends trying to keep the device 15 feet away from the building, or as far as space allows.
“You do still have the potential for a fire if something goes wrong with the grill,” Karl said. “We want people to be aware of where they’re putting the grill and the potential dangers.”
Landlords are supposed to inform tenants, in writing, of all the fire code regulations upon move-in and lease renewal. After that, tenants are responsible for following the regulations.
Those who are found to be in violation of the code will be issued a notice and given the opportunity to remove the offending items. Failure to correct the violation could result in a citation and fine.
Karl encourages people with questions about the rules to call the Arlington County Fire Prevention Office at 703-228-4644.
The Sun Gazette reports this morning that the County Board has discussed the idea of training and empowering citizens to enforce sign laws in Arlington by spotting and reporting violations to county staff.
Proponents for citizen sign enforcement have spoken up during past Board meetings, but with little to show for it. Now, however, with the county advertising proposed changes to its sign ordinance, three out of five Board members seem willing to seriously consider the idea.
One argument against the idea is the conflict it could create between business owners and the citizen sign enforcers.
Should citizens be deputized to be the “eyes and ears” of county code enforcement?
A property owner was arrested last week and charged with bribery, after allegedly trying to pay off a county inspector who had discovered code violations. Ibrahim Abdullah, a Cherrydale resident, was booked and held on a $5,000 bond.
BRIBERY-ARREST, 08/31/11, 3600 block of Fairfax Drive. On August 31 at 10 am, a person who owns several properties in Arlington County with code violations attempted to bribe a county inspector. The inspector reported the incident to the police. Ibrahim Abdullah, 56, of Arlington, was charged with Bribery. He was held on a $5,000 bond.
The rest of this week’s Arlington County crime report, after the jump.
Earlier this week we reported that some residents were upset with loophole in Arlington’s parking code that allows commercial trucks to park for extended periods of time in front of schools, libraries and other county properties.
But trucks aren’t the only hulking masses taking up space on the side of local roads. Here’s what one peeved resident wrote us this morning:
Storage pods are very popular nowadays with all the moving that goes on in Arlington, but usually they are picked up in a few days and require a county permit. This pod has been on 1st Road South in front of Butler Holmes Park for over three months. We have called the Boxcart company, and were told they would pick it up. They didn’t, and why would they – they are getting free storage of the pod courtesy of Arlington. We have called the county twice. They said they would look into it because they should be charging a fee to Boxcart – much more interested in revenue generation than getting this storage unit off our street. They didn’t even do that, as the storage unit is still sitting there with no permit.