Shuttered Homes, Thriving Wildlife

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

For a while, the two-story house with the burgundy shutters at Copeland Drive and Strasburg Street in Manassas appeared to be growing wheat in the yard. Rangy, hip-high green stalks swayed in the breeze, their bushy yellow tips glowing in the late afternoon light. In one especially thick stand of the suburban savannah was visible a hollowed-out den, where a large mammal was apparently bedding down for the night.

It was a pastoral scene Carl Berry could do without. He lives two doors down from the house, which he said was abandoned about six weeks ago by a family that used to keep the property tidy. Now there's a real estate agent's lockbox on the door, rain-sopped newspapers in the driveway and, until repeated complaints brought it down, uncut grass so unruly it was attracting other occupants.

Such as rats.

Berry watched one brazen specimen cross the street and scamper into the overgrowth the other day. "I'd never seen a rat in this neighborhood until now, and I've lived here since 1988," he said. He and his wife have seen snakes in the reedy thicket, too. When the couple would stroll down the sidewalk, Berry said, "my wife walked in the street because she didn't know what was hiding in there."

In neighborhoods across the region, a potent recipe is brewing on the front lawns and in the back yards of thousands of homes emptied by foreclosures. The combination of a rainy spring and a flood of the unkempt houses has local governments increasingly concerned about public health and struggling to keep nature at bay. As more people move out, the grass grows taller, the water puddles up and the wild things move in.

Mosquitoes thrive in the empty swimming pools and junk piles that have been filled and refilled by the recent rains. Ticks flourish in the tall grass. So do rodents, which also like the shelter of dry, empty houses and whatever garbage they might contain. Then come the snakes, with the rest of the animal kingdom not far behind.

"Anything that is not maintained creates a potential attraction for a lot of opportunistic wildlife," said Scott McCombe, general manager for Critter Control of Northern Virginia, an animal-removal agency that specializes in nonlethal methods. "And this is typically the season when things start to get rocking and rolling."

The cool weather and abundant rainfall have created "perfect growing conditions" for all types of vegetation, said Thomas Matzen, deputy director of environmental resources in Prince George's County.

Matzen has about 45 inspectors to investigate property complaints, and the county relies on public works employees and inmates from the Department of Corrections to fill in when residential landscaping goes untended.

He is worried that the properties will be magnets for litter and other junk. "Whenever you have property not being lived in, it can be seen as a neighborhood dumping ground," he said. The stagnant water on the properties would create an additional health hazard, he said.

In Fairfax County, Jorge Arias recently inspected three properties that were the source of complaints and treated several pools of water teeming with mosquito larvae. "With all these rains, we'll see more and more breeding sites," said Arias, the county's environmental health entomologist.

No county in the region has been hit harder by the foreclosure wave than Prince William, where there are nearly 7,000 empty houses, said neighborhood services coordinator Michelle Casciato. Given recent census estimates, that means about one in 20 houses in the county are unoccupied.

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