Orange County officials are hoping stiff fines and the possibility of jail time will help litterbugs think twice about tossing trash out of their car windows and along county roads.
“It may be anecdotal, but it seems to me that it’s gotten a lot worse lately,” District 1 Supervisor Mark Johnson said referencing roadside litter at a March board meeting. “Folks are starting to talk to me about it and they make some very good points. We spend a lot of money on tourism and facilitating agritourism and it’s a bad deal for people to drive here and see trash up and down the road. There’s probably trash up and down the road on their way here, but if we are their destination or we’d like them to stop and spend a few hours, it seems to me that it’d behoove us to address the issue of “pandemic of litter” we seem to be dealing with.”
To that end, supervisors discussed what steps they might be able to take not only to curb the practice, but also clean up the roads in the interim.
Since that meeting, work-release inmates from the Central Virginia Regional Jail and private contractors have taken to the county’s trashiest roadways to collect wayward fast food bags and containers, empty drink cans, spent lottery tickets and all manner of garbage.
When it met last week, the board considered a proposed ordinance that would address littering specifically, making it a Class 1 misdemeanor with a fine of up to $1,000.
Orange County Attorney Thomas Lacheney said he drafted the proposed ordinance essentially based on state code, except for the fine, which the state says can be anything from $250 or higher, he said.
“The way it works is technically a citizen can swear out a warrant for someone they see throwing trash out of the window. They take the license number and there’s a presumption in the ordinance the owner of that vehicle is the one who threw the trash out and they have to prove they didn’t,” he explained to the board. However, although citizens can make claims, very few are likely to do so because they often don’t want to get involved, he continued.
Citizens can make anonymous complaints about zoning or building code violations because county officials can verify those violations themselves, he said. “But we can’t go to court on an anonymous litter complaint.”
“The reality is this is much more effective if the citizens are watching because how often does the sheriff’s office see someone in the act of discarding trash?” Lacheney said. “In most jurisdictions, the sheriff’s office has this tool, but they’re not the witnesses to the bulk of the trash flying out of car windows.”
At the March meeting when Johnson broached the litter subject, Orange County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Mike LaCasse said it’s difficult to catch litterers in the act.
“The deputies are running calls or investigating crimes and not necessarily witnessing people throwing items out of their cars,” he told the board. “We get them sometimes, but not nearly the number that would account for the garbage you see on the side of the road. We deal with litter on an individual basis when people call about people who are dumping a bunch of stuff on the side of road. We deal with those fairly frequently.”
Lacheney said the current ordinance lists littering as a Class 3 misdemeanor with a $250 fine.
The board could chose to make the fine as high as $2,500 with up to 12 months in jail. Or, he noted, the court could sentence those found guilty to community service to pick up trash along the side of the road, which he said would seem to be “poetic justice.”
“I was driving through another county a few days ago and saw a good-sized sign that said there was a $2,500 fine for littering.” District 4 Supervisor and board chair Jim Crozier noted. “They were serious. It would only take one or two of those fines to get out there and people would pay attention.”
The board unanimously agreed to solicit public comment on the proposed ordinance before considering adding it to the county’s code.
“Let’s see who comes in to speak against that,” District 5 Supervisor Lee Frame concluded.