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Big Tree Fall Hard in Ashton Heights

(Updated at 5:15 p.m.) A downed tree in the Ashton Heights neighborhood is leading to a call to the county ombudsman’s office.

The big tree, said to be more than a century old, fell last night near the intersection of N. Lincoln Street and 5th Street N., knocking out power to the area.

The neighborhood listserv is now abuzz with talk of what might have caused the old tree to fall during calm weather. Paving work on the street, residents are speculating, may have had something to do with it.

“A massive road repaving project brought in heavily vibrating equipment — many thought unnecessarily vibrating — which, according to our neighborhood listserv buzz, may have contributed to the tree’s fall, given very wet soil conditions,” a resident told us. “I lack professional credentials to shed light on that one way or another.”

Whether rooted in fact or not, residents are not content to leave the issue alone. They’re barking up the tree of the county ombudsman, according to a listserv email.

“Scott Sklar is contacting the county ombudsman about this problem today and complaining on behalf of Ashton Heights,” the email says. “The tree was 125 years old. Very sad.”

Sklar, president of the Ashton Heights Civic Association, said residents felt as if there was an “earthquake” when the heavy equipment was in use. One resident even reported that her morning cup of coffee rolled off the kitchen counter and broke as a result of the pervasive vibrations.

There’s “no question” about what caused the tree to fall, he said.

“The County contractors are using percussion rollers to compress the road under-bed — which uses intense weight and sound rather than the usual heavy roller compression approach,” he told ARLnow.com. ” There is no question in my mind, that this new approach is what caused this old tree to fall after the heavy rain we just had.”

“Use of percussion rollers should not be used in areas where there are large trees and old homes (pre-2000),” Sklar said. “Manufacturer’s warnings on percussion rollers explicitly state they should not be used near large trees or old buildings

Meghan McMahon, spokeswoman for the Arlington Dept. of Environmental Services, said in a statement that the county is “reviewing the matter.”

DES crews have been performing roadbed reclamation and paving on Lincoln Street over the past week. The roadbed reclamation process, which was completed on June 30, is more disruptive than normal paving or patching. This process uses a machine that churns and mixes the base of the road at a deeper level so more vibrations and disturbance may occur. This process is specifically used for underbuilt, lower volume roads like Lincoln Street. Our paving contractors use vibratory rollers and other heavy machinery during the roadbed reclamation process. These rollers are also used on every street during maintenance and repaving. Rollers are commonly used to gain better compaction in asphalt construction. Yesterday’s work on Lincoln Street was repaving.

We have used these processes for several years in this neighborhood and several others like it that have older trees and houses. This is the first we have heard of such impacts from this type of work. We are reviewing the matter to determine what caused the tree to fall.

As seen in the photos above, some paving equipment was underneath the tree when it fell.

“Two County vehicles were enclosed by the tree canopy when it fell, but neither were impacted or damaged,” said McMahon. “The storm drain was damaged, but we have already put in a work order to fix this. It will be prioritized based on other work we have and safety.”

Photos courtesy Elizabeth Lyon

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Neighbors Gather to Complain About Complaints, Gripe About Grumpy British Man

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.”

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Interview with Arlington County’s New Resident Ombudsman

Arlington County government's offices at 2100 Clarendon BlvdLast month, Arlington County announced that it had appointed a new ombudsman for residents.

Robert Sharpe, who previously served as assistant director in Arlington’s Dept. of Human Services, now works out of the County Manager’s office with the title “Resident Ombudsman and Director, Constituent Services.”

Sharpe’s role is not to be confused with that of the county’s business ombudsman, who was appointed in 2014 and advocates on behalf of local businesses within the county government.

We asked Sharpe about the job and what he hopes to accomplish for Arlington residents.

ARLnow: What do you want to accomplish in your new position?

Sharpe: “I hope to advocate on behalf of the Arlington residents, in terms of how the county board interacts with the rest of the county. I want to try to increase efficiency, make everything move a little smoother.”

There are already options for residents to report potholes and maintenance issues, to express opinions to the County Board, etc. Why add this position if there’s already a mechanism for most kinds of complaints?

“The Resident Ombudsman is not a new position. It’s a twist on an existing constituent services position in the County Manager’s office. The position was largely internal previously and was not promoted as a resident resource.”

“The intent is to create another option. If I can free up the County Board’s time, they can focus on other things, I’m helping to increase efficiency. Sometimes the information is already out there, I want to make it easy to find.”

Could you speak out and publicly advocate for certain things to get done, as a newspaper ombudsman might, or is this mostly about getting things done internally?

“It’s more internal, I can’t see myself being critical in a public manner. If I get a resident complaint that I can solve, I don’t see a need to publicly make a statement.”

What local problems might you handle that aren’t otherwise being taken care of effectively now?

“We get a lot of complaints about things like utility providers. We try to work these issues out with, say, Washington Gas. Recently we had a complaint about a home being built in an untimely manner, we worked with the builder to solve this.”

“I’m also well-positioned to identify trends. I’m a big believer in continuous improvement. The most rewarding part of the job is seeing an individual resident complaint turn into a process improvement that benefits all residents.”

Are there cases where contacting you isn’t the most efficient way to take care of a problem?

“Residents with straightforward service requests or questions will get best results through resources like the A-Z Directory of Services or the Make a Service Request / Report a Problem [form], which is also available as a mobile app for iOS and Android.”

“The Resident Ombudsman role comes into play when residents don’t get good customer service or have trouble navigating County government. If someone hits  a roadblock, that’s where I come in.”

Any last thoughts?

“The one thing I would like to stress is that as a resident for 13 years, is that I have seen progress in the county government. The County Board has been very responsive.”

Sharpe be reached via email or at 703-228-1762.

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