Reston Spring

Reston Spring
Reston Spring

Thursday, September 18, 2014

When is a Fairfax County property "blighted" and how does it get fixed?

The draft Phase 2 Reston Master Plan contains the following language in the section concerning our neighborhoods:
. . . from time to time, circumstances may arise that merit consideration of the redevelopment of an existing cluster or neighborhood, such as if a cluster should become blighted (emphasis added).  Under such circumstances, the Board of Supervisors may consider proposals to amend the Comprehensive Plan to allow for the consolidation and redevelopment of such clusters or neighborhoods.  (p. 48, working draft Reston plan text, September 5, 2014)
Yet nowhere in the Reston draft plan is their a definition of "blighted" nor a a metric of how "blighted" is blighted enough for County-permitted redevelopment.  Apparently, Virginia law limits current County authority to act on "blighted" neighborhoods to situations endangering public health or safety, which is certainly a reasonable standard. 

Now we learn via a Fairfax Times article by staff reporter Kali Schumitz  that the County Board of Supervisors is drafting plans to tighten up on actions with regard to "blighted" properties:
Currently, the county can take action to repair a property when it presents a danger to public health or safety and the owner has failed to make repairs. Under those conditions, the county can then place a tax lien on the property for the cost of the repairs.
However, county code enforcement officials have encountered instances where there were severe problems that were affecting neighbors but the problem did not present an imminent threat to public safety.
In those cases, the county has to go through court proceedings. If the owner still has not complied with a court-ordered repair, the county can then make the repairs, however it is more difficult for the county to ever recoup the repair costs because they cannot utilize a tax lien. . . .

On Tuesday, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors discussed possibly pursuing legislation at the state level that would expand their ability to act outside of the court system and to use tax liens to recoup the costs.
While supervisors were supportive of the expanded powers in extreme cases, . . . they wanted to ensure it would not apply to the more typical code violations that the county deals with.
Click here to read the full Fairfax Times article.

We worry that the language regarding court ordered repairs based on "severe problems affecting neighbors" lowers the standard substantially.  Clearly, there are always situations when one neighbor is loudly dissatisfied (if possibly erroneously) with the condition of another neighbor's property, and there is no operational definition of what a "severe problem" is.  We think this standard is unacceptably weak. 

More worrisome is the fact that the County is seeking additional authority to act outside the court system when there is not a clear public danger.  That opens wide the possibility of all kinds of half-baked reasons for the County to consider a property "blighted" based on people's opinion, not on some objective standard.  Unless some clear operational definition is provided of what the circumstances are that constitute "blighted" (and none are offered in the draft Reston plan text), we must oppose the County initiative as potentially leading to capricious and arbitrary decisions that generate costly renovations or redevelopment of properties.  And we are talking about acting on people's private property without their approval, indeed, over their objection, whether it's and individual homeowner or a massive apartment or office building.  In this kind of situation, we believe the County's authority should be seriously constrained.

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