Posted on January 12, 2007

Tension in the Neighborhood

Beth Macy and Evelio Contreras, Roanoke Times, Jan. 12, 2007

Neighbors look out upon Nery Orozco’s home in Boxley Hills and see rutted tire tracks on the front lawn.

Across the street, an angry homeowner who doesn’t want his name used in this story threatens lawsuits against Orozco and snaps pictures of the eight to 12 cars often crammed in his driveway and parked helter-skelter in his front yard.

In a scene that’s becoming increasingly common in Northern Virginia and other regions with booming Hispanic communities, this once-quiet block of Thornrose Road has become a microcosm of the immigration debate.

Neighbors in this North Roanoke County community complain that “the Mexicans” have people coming and going at all hours of the day, play their music too loudly and threaten property values. Some residents have already put their houses up for sale. Others say they will but worry they won’t get anywhere near the asking price.

“The Mexicans” in question hail from Guatemala, and some of their children are U.S.-born citizens. They don’t understand the big deal about the cars parked in the yard, and the music doesn’t sound that loud to them. But they say they want to be good neighbors — if only the others on the block would speak directly to them.

Last Friday, Thornrose resident Bill Metzler managed to do what several Roanoke County police officers, neighborhood association people and zoning officials could not: He invited Orozco and his family into his home and he told them, face to face and in as calm a manner as he could muster, what exactly they were doing wrong.

“There appears to be some tension in the neighborhood,” he said, by way of introduction.

‘A right to be upset’

When Metzler retired to Roanoke to take care of his 92-year-old mother last year, he looked for a peaceful place to live: someplace conservative, quiet, middle class. He’d worked in Richmond for most of his career as a human resources manager. The Boxley Hills ranch house, with its attached mother-in-law suite, suited his needs perfectly.

Developed in the early 1960s, Boxley Hills is a secluded, mostly white subdivision with 450 homes and three entrance streets feeding into it from Williamson Road. Like neighborhood association treasurer Tom Runions, many residents are retired and are the original owners of their homes.

“People have a right to be upset,” said Runions, who has received many calls about the Orozco property. “The way they live and carry on, it’s just not our way of life.”

When Orozco bought the house in November for $169,950, everything changed, neighbors said. Visitors drove cars with thumping stereos and left beer bottles and trash in the yard. Suddenly, quiet Boxley Hills didn’t feel so safe.

Metzler and his neighbors insist they’re not prejudiced. But the cultural gap, they concede, is wide.

“There are people who are upset about the noise and who think they have too many people living in the home,” Metzler said. But what disturbs him most is the chewed up yard and the effect that might have on neighboring property values.

According to Roanoke County zoning administrator Bill Richardson, the problem isn’t as widespread as it is in more heavily Hispanic areas. A year ago, Manassas approved an anti-crowding ordinance to tighten zoning laws in response to the same bevy of complaints the Thornrose neighbors have made. The anti-crowding ordinance was later repealed when civil rights groups threatened to instigate a federal investigation into discriminatory housing practices.

Richardson says the county zoning code limits single-family properties to “persons related by blood, marriage or adoption” and no more than five unrelated people.

Though he can’t comment specifically on the ongoing case, Richardson said, “There’s clearly some adaptation that needs to occur both ways.”

In the six weeks since Orozco bought the house, Roanoke County police have made several visits at neighbors’ requests. Four reports were issued and some informal mediation has occurred, but no police charges were filed, according to Lt. Chuck Mason.