Fairfax County officials say they will find it easier to crack down on those who violate the county's zoning laws after July 1.
That is when new statewide legislation affecting Fairfax and other Virginia counties with executive forms of government goes into effect. The legislation will allow Fairfax to charge zoning violators with civil, rather than criminal, penalties.
"Courts have been reluctant to give someone a criminal record over a zoning violation," according to Lawrence A. McDermott, assistant director of the Fairfax Zoning Administration Division.
"The courts will deal more vigorously with civil cases," he said.
The zoning administration division is working on special language to present to the county board of supervisors outlining plans for implementation of new procedures.
Fairfax officials have been looking for better ways to prosecute violators of zoning laws for years, officials said. Criminal penalties have been hard to impose because county officials have difficulty getting prosecutors who are involved in major criminal investigations to focus on zoning violations, officials said.
In addition, when cases have been brought, convictions have been hard to come by. Civil penalties will be far easier to impose, according to staff members.
"Who wants to give a happy homeowner a criminal record? These changes will help us in enforcement," McDermott said.
The fact that state regulations mandated that zoning violations be treated as criminal cases generated publicity about 18 months ago when county officials discovered that a former U.S. senator was leasing units in a McLean apartment building and then subletting those units for a short period of time in violation of then-existing county zoning laws. Fairfax later changed those laws to permit some short-term rentals in buildings, but only when strict conditions are met.
Last November, Fairfax supervisors told the zoning staff to implement a "prepayable summons system" for certain zoning violations. But those "violations still remained a criminal offense," McDermott said.
The General Assembly this year adopted legislation that permits counties with "the urban county executive form of government to establish civil penalties for certain zoning violations," according to a recent memo to the board of supervisors from the county staff.
"We plan to start off cautiously," McDermott said in discussing how Fairfax will implement the changes.
Zoning violations cover a broad spectrum of offenses, including operating a business out of a home without a license, running a business in a commercial area that may not be allowed under the existing zoning category and selling bread over the counter in a gas station without a special exception permit. Building a carport or an addition to a house without permits or too close to a lot line also can be a violation, officials said. Building tennis courts or swimming pools too close to lot lines or without proper fencing also can result in a citation, officials said.
"We had 4,200 complaints or violations last year," according to McDermott.
"Once a violation is established, a notice will be sent to the property owner," according to proposed procedures. Violators will be given what the county calls "a reasonable time to clear the violation." Violators can expect to be served with a summons from police or the sheriff's department if they fail to respond to warnings that they are violating zoning laws, proposed procedures say.
While a particular zoning violation may be cited as a civil, rather than a criminal, violation, "Injunctive relief and other remedies will still be available," the memorandum to the board said.
The new state law would allow Fairfax to set maximum penalties at $50 for a specific violation, but each day the violation continues would be a separate offense. There is a cumulative maximum fine of $250 for a 10-day period, McDermott said.
If a violator chooses to prepay a fine for a violation for which he or she is charged, "prepayment is an admission of guilt," McDermott said.
If a violation continues, "We will take other appropriate legal action to clear the violation," but that action would have to be determined on a case-by-case basis by the county's legal staff, McDermott said.