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New Pr. William Coordinator Plans Outreach on Cleanup

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page C01

This week, Michelle Casciato will start her work as an exterior decorator of sorts for Prince William County homeowners.

As "neighborhood coordinator" for a county aspiring to a more affluent image, she will be educating homeowners on how their property should look and how it should not.

The rusted car parked indefinitely in the driveway and the boat trailer taking up a couple of parking spaces on a cul-de-sac no longer are acceptable, said Casciato, who is being paid $70,203 a year to get across that message.

A neatly cut lawn is encouraged.

As million-dollar homes continue to rise in Prince William, and residents in gated subdivisions voluntarily subject themselves to stringent rules governing how many trees they can plant or cut down, Casciato will help residents elsewhere keep the appearance of their property shipshape, and she also will encourage them to rat out neighbors who let their homes go.

At the heart of her effort will be laws that have been on the books for years but were ignored.

Casciato, who was hired two months ago and has been coordinating the program, has a job that is unique to the area. Other jurisdictions use inspectors to enforce the code, and some have programs -- such as Alexandria's "fight blight" initiative -- to seize unkempt, abandoned properties if necessary. Casciato will go a step further by reaching out to the public with brochures, meetings and ads, making sure they know what the laws allow, County Executive Craig S. Gerhart said.

"We're not talking white gloves. We're not having tea parties on the front lawn," Casciato said. "But you can't have three or four storage sheds and broken-down cars. . . .For good or for bad, Prince William County really is no longer a rural outpost."

Her goal, according to the county's job description, is to prevent "neighborhoods from deteriorating and making sure the community is well kept up."

Before she took the job, Casciato spent 21 years as a property manager. She said she already has identified 10 neighborhoods in need of immediate help. Afraid she might alienate residents by naming the neighborhoods, Casciato only would say that many are on the eastern end of the county where aging strip malls and older subdivisions define the landscape and have long characterized Prince William as an affordable place to live.

But the upscale subdivisions that are popping up across the county are redefining Prince William as a wealthier community in line with such suburban neighbors as Fairfax.

In addition to hiring Casciato, the county has been steadily beefing up its property-code enforcement as residents become more concerned with aesthetics, said Sean T. Connaughton (R), chairman of the Board of County Supervisors. "When people see their houses moving up [in value], they want to see their community clean," he said.

In the past five years, the county has increased the number of property-code inspectors from two to 15. They scour every corner of the county's sprawling 348 square miles, looking for peeling paint, knee-high weeds, piles of trash and tumbledown toolsheds -- all of which are illegal. Each inspector has an average of 100 active cases, according to the code enforcement office.

The police department designates three officers to code enforcement. And two assistant county attorneys -- Robert P. Skoff and Jeffrey R.B. Notz -- handle code violations exclusively. They take about 30 to 40 cases to court every two weeks, said Notz, adding: "A few years ago, it was zero."

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