Fairfax County supervisors agree: Abandoned shopping carts are eyesores that diminish the landscape and are miserably difficult to extricate from bodies of water.
Supervisors at their Land-Use Policy Committee meeting July 20 examined a draft ordinance to address the problem, but concluded the concept needed much more work.
An abandoned-shopping-cart ordinance could lessen visual clutter, reduce obstructions in vehicular and pedestrian rights-of-way, and benefit the county’s revitalization areas, wildlife, creeks and overall environment, staff said in its presentation.
But such a measure would be hard to enforce, need coordination among various county agencies and possibly require more staff and resources, they added.
Staff’s idea: Assign a Department of Code Compliance inspector within two days of receiving a complaint, and issue a notice of violation within 14 days if officials can confirm a cart had been abandoned.
Sites then would be re-inspected after 15 days. Officials would close the case if the cart vanished; if not, they would pick up the cart and take it to a landfill. If violations occurred again, the county could take legal action.
State enabling legislation, passed in 2020, defines shopping carts as abandoned if they remain off a store’s premises for at least 15 days after officials mail the carts’ owners violation notices. Localities then may remove the carts from properties without further notice, charging owners of the retail establishments up to $300 for the removal and disposal of each cart.
State law also gives localities the right to initiate legal action for repeat infractions, and subject violators to civil penalties of not more than $500. The county’s proposed ordinance – which would not apply to the towns of Vienna, Herndon and Clifton – does not have a provision for fining individuals.
Virginia’s enabling legislation does not allow Fairfax County to mandate that businesses collect abandoned, off-site shopping carts unless the county first issues violation notices and collects fines, said Matt Mertz of the county’s Department of Code Compliance.
County officials cannot force businesses to implement plans to prevent their shopping carts from being removed from their property or abandoned.
Enabling legislation also does not permit the county to craft its own effective ordinance to address the local shopping-cart situation, Mertz said.
Board members thought the enforcement timeline was too elongated and would place an undue burden on investigators and removal crews. Supervisors also were dubious about the feasibility of requiring retailers to mark their carts with identifying tags or brandings.
There has not been sufficient outreach to owners of shopping centers, said Supervisor Cathy Smith (D-Sully), who chairs the committee.
“I think we still need to advocate with the General Assembly to allow us to create a situation where we can require shopping centers to have plans for their carts,” she said.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay (D) said the proposed ordinance might cause more problems than it solves and that it might be better to seek changes in the state’s law.
“I’m not so sure that by laying out this long process that we’re not further tying our hands and losing our authority to do some things that we can do today, like have neighborhood cleanups clean up the carts,” McKay said. “While we may not be able to collect a fine, at least good Samaritans can touch these [carts], can move them, can do things to them.”
Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) said the ordinance still had too many unresolved issues.
“It’s going to be very labor-intensive for the county to enforce this,” he said, adding the county likely would have to bring in a truck to haul away an abandoned shopping cart to a landfill.
Supervisor Patrick Herrity (R-Springfield) favored further public outreach and said shopping-cart restrictions likely would hit poorer areas the hardest.
“My problem with this is it provides absolutely no incentive for people to stop stealing carts,” Herrity said. “I mean, this really punishes our businesses for making carts available.”
Supervisor Daniel Storck (D-Mount Vernon) said an ordinance was needed because “hundreds” of shopping carts had been abandoned in local streams and creeks in the last 10 to 15 years.
“The issue is real,” Storck said. “This particular legislation doesn’t make it easy, but it does provide, I think, an opportunity to at least test whether something can be done.”
Some retailers do a good job of keeping their shopping carts on-site, while others see occasionally losing some as part of the cost of doing business, Storck said. He suggested having community members photograph abandoned carts and pass them along to county investigators, who then could determine which cases to pursue.
Supervisor James Walkinshaw (D-Braddock) worried the enforcement process would be bureaucratic and cumbersome, bordering on Kafkaesque.
“I just don’t see this as something that could really be implemented to any great effect,” he said. “Maybe our best option is to move forward with it and demonstrate that it is ineffective and ask for the real tools that we need, whatever those might be.”
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