Since the late County Board chairman Charles P. Monroe proposed compiling a list of Arlington's 50 worst properties, residents, community activists and elected officials have been eager to offer suggestions.
One candidate, on South 17th Street at a busy county intersection near an Ethiopian restaurant and a row of tidy ramblers, features a ramshackle house and a cramped, littered yard.
Bits of furniture, partially disassembled lawn mowers, rolls of old carpeting, discarded tires and propane tanks litter the ground between two tar paper shacks. There is also a well-used lime-green Chevy Chevette.
Another candidate, a once-stylish bungalow with gray stucco at North Pollard and North 17th streets, features boarded-up doors and broken windows, a green corrugated metal roof splotched with rust and a glider -- minus its seat cushions -- on what is left of the front porch.
Just across the muddy street sits another nominee, a slouching, split-level house of brick and faded apricot-colored siding. With plywood-covered windows and gaping holes, the house appears to have been dragged to earth by vines.
Except for raccoons and other creatures, both structures are vacant.
But coming up with a final list of the worst eyesores may be the easy part.
Monroe's "fight the blight" initiative was cheered by elected officials, community activists and residents. Democrats and Republicans alike applauded. But seeking legal remedies, or even finding the owners of some properties, could be a daunting task.
Many community leaders say the initiative is all but certain to spark conflicts in some neighborhoods and heighten tensions along fault lines of class and race. A seedy property in one neighborhood, for example, might not be considered so bad in another; one man's "blight" might be another's home repair project he has been meaning to start.
"Is it going to be as little as 'I haven't painted my house in three years?' " wondered Alfred Taylor, president of the Nauck Civic Association. Asked to list derelict properties in his community, he declined. "I'm leery to say because there's no definition of 'run-down.' "
What's more, the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development's Inspection Services Division, the county office responsible for enforcing the community code, has staffing and organization problems that could hamper the effort, some civic activists say. County budget documents show that the division has 13 full-time employees to enforce ordinances on property maintenance, zoning, noise, garbage and weeds.
Janette Purnell, program supervisor for code enforcement, said inspectors investigated 1,009 code violations in the quarter between July 1 and Sept. 30 alone. The unit handled 3,449 cases in fiscal 2001, up from 2,357 the previous year.
But the manner in which the records are kept does not allow one to determine how many of those violations applied to multiple-family apartment complexes or single-family houses or how many complaints involved something as minor as overgrown grass or as serious as a safety hazard, officials said.
"There's an office that's been in overload for years," said Jim Pebley, former president of the Arlington County Civic Federation.
The county has had an uneven record of keeping up with complaints, Pebley said, despite instituting a civil penalties program in fiscal 1999 that allowed inspectors to write tickets for violations that could be seen easily and documented. The program was designed to speed compliance and avoid more arduous criminal sanctions, he said.
"They're going to have to put some people and some money into that office," he said.
In addition, the county does not make it easy for the public to inspect complaints against problem properties. People who visit the Inspection Services Division seeking information on a property's record of compliance are referred to the Citizen and Consumer Affairs Office, where they must file a request in writing under Virginia's Freedom of Information Act for a list of complaints and notices of violation.
Mary-Alice Gray, team leader for the consumer affairs office, said FOIA procedures allow the county to track the requests properly and shield the privacy of people who complain.
"You know how these things go sometimes," she said. "It could be a problem."
Monroe, in assuming leadership of the five-member board on Jan. 1, pledged a crackdown on "unsightly blights" that drag down the value of neighborhoods or pose health and safety risks.
By law, local governments have the power to condemn and demolish dilapidated properties, but the process can be tortuous. Monroe said that if the county could not muscle landlords into complying with local ordinances and fire codes, he would push for legislative change in Richmond, traditionally a hard sell in a state that reveres property rights.
But Monroe, who suffered a brain aneurysm while presiding over his first board meeting, died before the list could be compiled. His board colleagues have pledged to carry on his blight initiative.
Monroe, known as one of the board's most gentlemanly and deliberate members, may have unwittingly launched an initiative that could set neighbor against neighbor, rile communities and strain the "Arlington Way" tradition of political politesse.
As e-mails and letters began to trickle in targeting properties, county officials struggled to define "blight." That's easy, if one means abandoned, rat-infested, boarded-up buildings smeared with graffiti, they said. But what about a chronically vacant building otherwise well-kept? A shaggy yard? A single-family house inhabited by more than a single family?
Complaints that have arrived in the County Board's office well before and after Monroe's speech run the gamut. Some reported a property because of peeling paint. Others deplore houses crowded with multiple families. One person wrote to Monroe suggesting that the county forbid people from putting anything but grass on sidewalk median strips because plants can become unsightly out of season.
In interviews, civic association leaders came up with dozens of properties. Cecilia Cassidy, executive director of Rosslyn Renaissance, nominated 1800 Wilson Blvd., as a site that has drawn complaints from neighbors.
"All the buildings were knocked down, and they put a used-car lot in," she said. "They stuck in a trailer and stacked cars all over the lot."
But inside the blue and gray trailer in question, Ace Feany, manager of EEE Auto Sales, has trouble seeing how a lot full of BMWs, Infinitis and Corvettes could be an eyesore.
"We do business here," he said, with a shrug. "We make money. It's been good for us." He said the business leases the property. The property's owner did not return a message left with Feany.
"What people might consider to be an eyesore or unsightly or unkempt might not rise to the level of 'blighted,' " said board Vice Chairman Barbara A. Favola (D). "I mean, 'blighted' is a strong word."
It is also easy to point the finger at absentee landowners who collect the rent but fail to maintain their properties. But community leaders say decaying properties often belong to elderly landowners who are not able, or cannot afford, to keep up their homes. Others can be attributed to estate battles or hard luck.
"I have been broke and out of work for the past six months," said Alan Altizer, surveying his yard, which contained a table saw, two sawhorses, a large pet carrier and four cars, the newest of which is 11 years old.
Standing on his porch jammed with garbage bags and boxes of empty beer bottles, Altizer, 53, said he had been out of work after a relative assaulted him. Things around his house just piled up, he said.
"I'm virtually ashamed of it myself," he said. "But I just lost about seven months of my life."
The property's owners, Oscar Gonzales and Maria Buschmann, said they have told Altizer many times to clean up or clear out.
"It's not dilapidated," Gonzales said.
On South 17th Street, near Glebe Road and Walter Reed Drive, the tar paper shacks have drawn periodic complaints for some time. But there, too, the situation has been complicated by the property's status. For nearly 40 years, the land was held by an estate.
Joanne Spohn, vice president at First Virginia Bank, which administered the Bob Washington estate, said his 1962 will stipulated that the tenant, whom she declined to name, could stay there as long as the tenant lived.
"Sometimes a neighbor would complain," she said. "We talked to him from time to time, and he would clean up and move things."
In September, the property was sold to James Stasiowski for $210,000, records show. Spohn said the new owner plans to build single-family houses on the site. She did not have a telephone number for the new owner, and efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.
Robert Phillips has come to know several county inspectors by name. That's because, for nearly 10 years, he and his neighbors have put up with crowding, front-yard car repairs, wild animals and a tenant who prominently displayed a Nazi flag -- all in the same house on South 20th Street. Bamboo sprouted through the floor; the chimney collapsed.
During a freeze recently, water pipes burst and leaked outside, Phillips said. No one has lived there, he said, since the tenant who flew the Nazi flag was evicted about two years ago by the county Sheriff's Office and an Arlington police SWAT team for failure to pay rent.
"This thing is a particularly sore spot for many of us," Phillips said. "After a while you get so frustrated, you wonder, who do you fuss at next?"
Property records list the owner as Patricia Daoust of Dearborn, Mich. But Daoust, who inherited the house, said she sold the property a year or so ago to the late Patrick Monahan of Monahan Realty.
"I realize it's a very miserable house, and that's why I wanted to get rid of it," she said. "The ones next door are big complainers, I know that."
Daoust referred further questions to Frank Dove, an employee of Monahan Realty. Dove, who is managing the property, expressed surprise that neighbors had complained.
"I've never heard anything," Dove said, adding that the records reflected a different owner because the deed formalizing Monahan's purchase had not been registered yet. "We had it boarded up until we decided what to do with it. We'll probably build on it in April or May."
On North 17th and North Pollard streets, residents have been frustrated over their attempts to have the county condemn the two vacant houses there. Neighbors say the structures have been magnets for wild animals, the homeless and teenagers drinking and using drugs.
"We've been trying for 13 years," neighbor Susan Hennessy said. "It's pretty appalling, I think."
Norman V. Brown, who owns the gray stucco bungalow at North 17th and North Pollard streets, dismissed Monroe's campaign and the neighbors' complaints.
"If that's his big agenda . . . ," Brown said. "I'm saying if the board has a set of priorities, these priorities should be something that affect the health and well-being of the people of Arlington," he said.
Brown, who said he has plans to build a house on the property, also disputed neighbors' complaints that the building was unsafe or invited problems, such as homeless people.
Any time the county has written him demanding that he make repairs or secure the property, he said, he has complied. He also denied that the property detracts from the value of his neighbors' homes.
The split-level across the street, meanwhile, has been empty since the two elderly sisters who own it, Concetta and Julia Rossi, moved in with relatives in Pennsylvania about six years ago. Reached by telephone, Concetta Rossi said that the sisters intended to return and live out their lives in the house but that poor health and deaths in the family have prevented them from doing so.
A few weeks ago, a county official called and shocked her with the description of the ruined property, said Rossi, 77.
"I just shouldn't have let it go like that," she said.
Whether any of those properties would have made the final cut for Monroe's roll of shame will never be known. But several elected officials and activists said he certainly would have given ample consideration to Columbia Heights Apartments on South Greenbrier Street.
"It's a deplorable complex," said Timothy Lynch, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization who toured the site with Monroe last year.
But Lynch also said there is hope for the property, which would tie in with efforts to revive Columbia Pike. Leesburg-based Silverwood Associates Inc. has signed a contract to purchase and renovate the 152-unit complex, Lynch said.
The county Planning Commission unanimously approved the developer's site plan and request for rezoning on Jan. 27.
"Deplorable" was also the word Mark Silverwood, president of the firm, used to describe the complex.
"I mean, we look at a lot of real estate, and this is the worst I've seen," he said. His firm, which is expected to close on the $10.8 million deal on March 10, intends to gut the 55-year-old buildings, modernize the apartments and build some condominiums.
Property records list the owner as Columbia Heights Associates, an entity controlled by Jess Fisher, 89, of the District. Reached by telephone Tuesday, his wife, Mildred, said her husband was not feeling well enough to come to the telephone.
In July, when Monroe, Lynch and others toured the apartments, residents complained of vermin, boarded-up windows and flooded laundry rooms, Lynch said.
"We walked through some of these places, and Charles was visibly shaken by the time he came out," Lynch said.
Meanwhile, the county's code enforcement staff is developing criteria and possible candidates for a list of the worst 50 properties by July 1, county spokesman Matt Martin said.
"I assume among those [criteria] will be the degree of violation and the number of previous violations," he said. "Those just seem to be logical things."
A Leesburg development firm has signed a contract to purchase and renovate the run-down Columbia Heights Apartments on South Greenbrier Street.