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Springfield Seeks End To Eyesore

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 16, 2007

At the entrance to Springfield's spruced-up commercial corridor along Old Keene Mill Road, the abandoned restaurant is an obvious blot on the landscape.

For almost five years, the low-slung structure -- formerly the home of Chi-Chi's, a Mexican restaurant chain that went bust several years ago -- has slowly deteriorated. Its Southwestern-style facade is graffiti-scrawled, vines and weeds now clamber up the building's faded stucco exterior, and the parking lot is cracked and overgrown.

"There's no reason for the building to be sitting there," said Jeff McKay, a spokesman for Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who has been fighting a months-long battle with county staff members and the property's owners to have the building torn down or fixed up.

It is also the target of complaints by Springfield residents, who say the dilapidated building is an embarrassment to Springfield's revitalization efforts.

At a Board of Supervisors meeting Aug. 6, Kauffman assailed the county's "timid approach" to commercial blight, using the abandoned Chi-Chi's as an example. He asked the county to hold commercial properties to the same standards as residential properties when it decides property is blighted. Currently, he said, the county relies on commercial property owners to clean up voluntarily.

"Our gripe . . . is that the county is not enforcing [laws against] commercial blight," McKay said. "They're only enforcing [laws against] residential blight."

County spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said she couldn't comment on specific properties. But she said that, in June, the county launched a comprehensive review of code enforcement policies, including its blight abatement program.

"We're looking at it in its entirety so we can make recommendations that will improve the entire system," Fitzgerald said.

In June, the county also assembled a cross-agency strike force to target blight, but it is focusing on crowded residential properties, which have been a major concern of county residents, Fitzgerald said.

Kettler, a longtime commercial and residential developer in the area, recently bought the former Chi-Chi's property from its New Jersey-based landowner, county officials said.

The county had tried to get the New Jersey landowner to clean up the property, to no avail, Kauffman said.

The property was reviewed in July 2006 by the county's Neighborhood Enhancement Task Force, composed of the Department of Housing and Community Development, the Health Department, the Police Department and other county agencies. But the panel concluded that it did not have the authority to ask the owner to fix up the property because the problems did not meet the county guidelines for blighted property, according to a letter sent by Housing and Community Development to the landowner.

Kettler has filed a site plan with the county to move a Bob Evans restaurant to the Chi-Chi's site from another location in Springfield, where it also owns property that it plans to redevelop. But it recently withdrew its rezoning application for that property, and the Bob Evans move appears to be in limbo, McKay said.

Kettler executives did not return calls for comment.

Kauffman's office has turned its attention to Kettler and has asked the developer to tear down the building while it decides how best to use the site. Springfield residents, McKay said, "just want the building taken down."

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