Supervisor Calls for Stronger Anti-Blight Effort

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Fairfax County is not taking advantage of state laws that allow local officials to go after owners of blighted properties, despite a highly publicized campaign to crack down on code violations in aging neighborhoods, Supervisor Jeff C. McKay said at his first board meeting yesterday.

McKay (D-Lee) campaigned last fall in part on a promise to bring more attention to the challenges facing the county's older neighborhoods, where illegal boarding houses and poorly maintained properties have caused concern among longtime residents.

The new supervisor is following the lead of his predecessor, T. Dana Kauffman, who retired from the board at the end of last year after pushing for more code enforcement and blight abatement.

McKay, who was steeped in the issue as Kauffman's chief of staff, demonstrated that he plans to bring his own ideas to the problem. He cited three state laws that the county is not using that would allow it to go after the owners of deteriorated properties. He asked County Executive Anthony H. Griffin to report back to the board by April on the possibility of using those laws to more "vigorously" combat residential and commercial blight.

"This is a circumstance where the state gives us increased flexibility, and we're not using it," McKay said. "And the frustration over blight continues in Springfield."

McKay's district includes downtown Springfield, where complaints have risen precipitously in some of the county's oldest neighborhoods in recent years.

Although blight has also provoked complaints in other parts of the county, the concentration of modest mid-century neighborhoods is high in the Lee District. Once stable enclaves for young families, some of the neighborhoods have slowly deteriorated as more homes have become rental properties, in some cases illegally.

With the outcry growing last year, Kauffman and Gerald E. Connolly (D), the board chairman, formed a countywide "strike team" to crack down on zoning violations such as overcrowded homes, illegal boarding houses and illegal in-home businesses.

The stepped-up enforcement coincided with the rise of illegal immigration as a political issue. Fairfax officials are under mounting pressure from neighboring jurisdictions to take a more aggressive approach. Connolly has said that the strike force shows the county is focused "on outcomes and behavior," not immigration status.

As of Dec. 21, the strike team had referred 25 cases for criminal prosecution and 27 cases for civil action.

McKay pointed out that state laws allow local governments to require property owners to fix buildings that endanger public health or safety, to abate "drug blight" and to remove defacement (such as graffiti) from private property.

Significantly, the laws allow local governments to make the fixes themselves if a property owner does not, and they permit local governments to recoup their costs in the same way unpaid local taxes are collected.

Blight abatement is not typically enforced through the strike team but through the county's Department of Housing and Community Development. McKay suggested that blight abatement should be consolidated and managed by the agencies leading the strike team, which include the Department of Planning and Zoning, the fire marshal and the police department.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company