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.

But Prince William has only one inspector working on mosquito abatement, and he is assigned to county swimming pools, said environmental health manager John Meehan. Meehan is looking to have a second inspector, anticipating hundreds of calls in the summer. The county has had only a few cases of West Nile virus in recent years, he said, but it's more of a concern this summer. "The risk is increasing with these vacant and unmaintained homes," Meehan said.

And new residents aren't filling up the empty houses fast enough. Although home sales in the county increased 14 percent from January through April compared with the same period last year, foreclosures in the county have gone up 211 percent in that time. There were 645 foreclosures last month in Prince William, Manassas and Manassas Park, court records show.

That is contributing to a fourfold increase this year in the number of complaints about tall grass in the county, Casciato said. She estimates that Prince William will need to set aside $1.2 million for mowing in the summer, assuming the grass will need to be cut three times, and that half the unoccupied houses in the county will be maintained by banks, real estate agents or whoever else is in charge of the job. Whenever the grass grows higher than 12 inches, Casciato's office must contract a mowing company at a cost of up to $150 per half-acre lot.

"We're hopeful that the real estate community and banking community will do what they can with the property entrusted in their care," Casciato said. "For the ones where that is not the case, we're calling on the community to help us locate those."

Fairfax has been slammed with tall-grass complaints, too. Spokesman Brian Worthy said officials have received 516 such calls in the past three weeks, compared with 900 in all of 2007. "We've got a lot of uncut grass," he said, adding that many property owners are complying with violation notices.

Counties don't provide landscaping services for free, and they try to recover mowing and maintenance costs through special levies or liens on properties serviced. In some cases, they even attempt to garnish property owners' wages. The debt must be squared before a new owner can take legal possession of the property.

The process is rarely swift. "These properties are basically in limbo," said Ron Pereira, general manager of the Lake Ridge Homeowners Association in Prince William. "The banks are so flooded with foreclosures that it takes them months to do something."

Frustration and impatience have turned some residents into lawn-care vigilantes, who attack the blighted yards with their own mowers and implements. Technically, it's trespassing, but health and safety matters come first.

"You got to protect the little ones," said Calvin McCray, a helicopter repairman who refurbishes lawn mowers in his spare time. He recently sheared the grass at a foreclosed house in his Woodbridge neighborhood that kids pass on the way to school, citing concerns that include safety against child and woodland predators. "We've got a lot of foxes running around," he said.

Few of the snakes that residents see are likely to be venomous, said Critter Control's McCombe, who gets about five calls a year for dangerous copperheads. Most of the snakes, he said, are black rat snakes, which are terrific vermin hunters. "They track rodents by the odor of their urine and droppings," he said.

In many suburban neighborhoods, a well-kept yard is a kind of social indicator, evidence of a neighborly covenant and a measure of good morals. These days, Manassas resident Jennifer Hansbrough sees the overgrown lawns in her neighborhood as a depressing economic barometer. It's bad enough that she is seeing more ticks and mosquitoes this year, but the long grass also signifies the $100,000 drop she has seen in her home's value.

"It reminds me the economy is crappy," she said.

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