A drive by realtors and builders to defeat a proposed Fairfax County consumer housing ordinance has caused an angry controversy between the county's powerful housing interests and most Fairfax supervisors over what one supervisor calls a deceptive and irresponsible campaign.
"This has been the most organized lobbying effort I've been exposed to in the last four years," said Supervisor Martha V. Pennino. "To say the least, it's misleading."
"It's a scare tactic to stir the public up," said Marie B. Travesky, the Republican supervisor who introduced the proposal which would require real estate agents to provide thousands of prospective buyers with information about the homes that they are considering purchasing.
The controversy is expected to culminate Monday afternoon when the supervisors consider two versions of the Travesky proposal. One version would limit its provisions to newlybuilt homes; a second version would include all home sales.
The dispute centers on a half-page of information, much of it in the form of yes-or-no questions, which sellers would have to provide about restrictive covenants, utilities, insulation, schools, sewerage and other basic items. The maximum penalty for failing to make the disclosures would be $500.
And while most supervisors appear to be leaning toward the limited newhomes-only version, the real estate agents and developers have made it clear they want no bill at all. Their effort to kill the proposed ordinance climaxed last week with newspaper ads which several supervisors charge are irresponsible and misleading.
"They're exaggerating the whole thing as if the world is going to turn over," scoffed Supervisor John P. Shacochis. "I've heard enough. "I've heard too much."
Several supervisors are seething over an erroneous statement in the advertisement warning homeowners that they could be jailed for not meeting the bill's terms when selling their houses.
"That's ridiculous," snapped Shacochis.
Supervisor Warren I. Cikins agrees, "It is a bit of an overstatement, and it's probably understatement to say it's just overstatement."
Shacochis also is angry over a handbill the Northern Virginia Board of Realtors passed on to its members several weeks ago. It showed a realtor behind bars, and sent an avalanche of letters and phone calls down on each supervisor from scared real estate agents, according to Shacochis.
"I've spent somewhere between 70 and 80 hours on the phone and answered dozens and dozens of letters, and I've told them, for God's sake, read the bill, and read it with some intelligence," Shacochis said.
Joseph Hayden, a spokesman for the Northern Virginia Board of Realtors, denies that the tectics constitute a scare campaign. "There is no intent to frighten anyone," he said. He pointed out that Travesky's original proposal of last November technically included a maximum penalty of a year in jail.
When told that neither version now before the supervisors contains such a provision, Hayden replied: "That's a matter of conjecture. The one released to the public [previously] is the one we've got."
That response angers county officials. "We've advised [industry representatives] that the revised version would specify a class-3 misdemeanor, which would carry with it a fine not exceeding $500 and no jail term," said Ronald B. Mallard, head of the county's Consumer Affairs Department. "They know that exists. They're throwing up every argument they can to oppose the bill."
The campaign illustrates the power of the housing interests in Fairfax, one of the nation's fastest growing housing areas and the most active real estate market in the metropolitan Washington area. But the real estate boom has not been without its problems.
Mallard said buyers' complaints about new homes have surpassed those the county receives about automobile purchases, the reverse of a national trend. "It means we have a problem and we have to deal with it," he said.
Supervisor Audrey Moore cites the example of a family who allegedly was told the land behind their new home was going to be a park. Recently, the family was shocked to find a warehouse going up there.
"I don't want to cause anybody any economic hardship," said Supervisor Joseph Alexander in reply to complaints that the ordinance would be costly. But he said that he also receives many homebuyers' complaints of broken promises. "Those kinds of things are not cricket as far as I'm concerned," he said.
Buyers often say that they were not told they'd have to pay homeowners' association fees in some subdivisions Mallard said. Herbert L. Aman III president of the Northern Virginia Builders Association, turns aside these complaints: "I would be most shocked if you went into one of my subdivisions and you weren't told about a homeowners' association."
Shacochis counters: "They say, 'We can police ourselves.' To which I say, what if the robbers' union tried to police themselves? If we didn't have problems, we wouldn't have laws on the books. We don't live in a utopia. Everybody is not honest."
Part of the county's problem is the large number of homes sold there each year. In 1974, it was about 12,000. Three years later, it was nearly 17,000. With the number of new homes built constantly growing, home sales could reach 20,000 this year, according to county officials.
Under Travesky's proposal, sellers would be required to provide a list of government telephone numbers which would give buyers more information about various problems related to housing. The builders and realtors say this would inundate county offices with calls, and eventually lead to a tax increase. "Nearly all the information that's being requested is normally furnished anyway," said Aman.
The proposal's backers disagree. "I think they've misunderstood what the bill would do," said Pennino. "I really cannot understand why anyone would not be willing to stand behind the product they sell."