More than 200 people crowded into Annandale United Methodist Church Tuesday evening to discuss gang violence, overcrowding in schools, violations of Fairfax County code and speeding at a community town hall.
Hosted by the Mason District Council of Community Associations (MDC) and sponsored by Annandale Patch and the Annandale Blog, the two-hour town hall was intended to open up a dialogue between residents and local officials.
“Tonight is not about resolving an issue," said Michelle Mock, who moderated the event. "There’s not a single issue we can touch tonight and bring to closure. Tonight’s the night we’re going to start new beginnings and have new dialogues and conversations."
A community panel of local representatives included Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross, School Board Representative Sandy Evans, Mason District Police Station Commander Capt. Gun Lee, and Fairfax County Department of Code Compliance representative Susan Epstein. Each was given 15 minutes to address a handful of concerns outlined in a community survey conducted by the MDC. The survey received a total of 662 responses between September 2012 and January 2013.
Crime Decreasing in Mason District
According to Lee, crime in Mason District has decreased overall by 9.6 percent in 2011 compared to 2010, but burglaries are up by 13 percent. Many of those burglaries are in the western part of Annandale. Lee said the suspects were apprehended after crime analysts determined the robberies were committed by a group of individuals and the suspects are currently awaiting prosecution.
While he did not give specific data, Lee noted that gang violence in Mason District has also decreased and said police will continue to work with the School Board and Gross to bring those numbers down further. The priority, Lee said, is education.
“It’s not just a police enforcement issue; it’s a parent issue as well as a community issue,” said Lee.
Loitering in Mason District
Some residents said they feel unsafe in the Little River Shopping Center and other areas in Mason District due to the number of people who loiter in the area looking for work.
“Is the county looking at the underlying reasons on why the loitering’s happening such as overcrowding in apartments, and the fact that although they may not be doing anything wrong on the sidewalks, they could be leading to crimes or other problems,” asked one resident in the audience.
In response, Lee said many of them are out there looking for honest work to support their families and the police try to be sensitive to that.
“I do understand that [their presence] may create some [negative] perception, but as an officer, we have a clear, defined line. Unless there’s a violation of a law, there’s nothing our officers can do,” said Lee, who added that the issue is one of harassment versus enforcement.
Multiple Occupancy Dwellings and Boarding Homes on the Rise
“Mason is deteriorating in appearance and cleanliness. I’m embarrassed to have friends and family visit my home because they have to drive past my neighbors who park their cars on their lawn,” was one person’s response about their concern regarding overcrowded homes on the MDC community survey.
When asked by a resident why Mason District had one of the highest number of complaints for multiple occupancy dwellings, Gross said the community reporting the violations was ultimately a positive thing.
“It’s because we have an educated and enlightened community in Mason District. People are willing to make the complaint and know what to look for,” said Gross.
To determine if there is overcrowding, inspectors visit the property and try to determine who lives in the home through various interview techniques. Epstein said that unlike the police, the Department of Code Compliance can't ask for ID to verify the number of persons in a home because they are limited by the property management restrictions under the Code of Virginia. However, Epstein said inspectors are trained how to spot the signs and try to talk their way into the home to determine if there’s a violation. While police officers occasionally accompany inspectors during property visits, this only occurs when a property has a history of violence or there's a life-saving issue.
“We can’t tie up police resources to go with us on every call,” said Epstein, to the dissatisfaction of the crowd.
The Department of Code Compliance replaced the former Mason District Strike Team that looked into violations such as overcrowding. However, some residents feel the work inspectors are doing to combat overcrowding isn't enough.
“Code Compliance is a complaint-driven agency. We don’t have county staff to drive around the community [and look for violations],“ said Gross.
Gross said the number of open cases in Mason District is low even if the number of complaints is high. Residents in the audience disagreed with Gross and her assessment that other districts in the county could have similar high numbers of overcrowding, but aren’t as widely reported. Epstein reiterated that the agency can only investigate after receiving a complaint.
Gross said the Board of Supervisors understands the resident’s frustration because it mirrors their frustration at judges who, despite having the authority to do so, don’t impose fines for code violations or penalize offenders as strongly as the community would like.
“We need to have a better system to have those fines enforced,” said Gross.