Permitting for Arlington Remodels Causes Homeowner Headaches

Want to fix up an older Arlington home? It may be easier said than done. Here's why.

Rock Spring resident Ken Robbins, whose home improvement project came with some unexpected hiccups. Photo by Liz Lynch

When Payam Fahr became the owner of the Sears Catalog house that had belonged to his mother for three decades, his first priority was to rescue the Ashton Heights bungalow from the brink of condemnation. In October 2015, just a few months after he had made the place habitable enough to move in, he received a notice of violation from an Arlington code enforcement inspector. But the problem had nothing to do with his recent renovations, the vast majority of which were internal. A woodpecker had poked a hole in one of the pylons holding up his front porch, leaving it chipped and the paint peeling.

Taking a closer look, Fahr realized that the wooden porch columns were rotting, so he decided to replace them altogether with new ones—the same size—made of a more durable composite fiberglass. “I wanted to make an investment that would surely outlast the house,” says Fahr, a mechanical engineer. He soon learned that this seemingly basic repair job would require a crash course on the Catch-22 that is the county’s zoning ordinance as it applies to a large share of Arlington’s older homes.

Fourteen months later the new columns still lay in his yard awaiting installation due to a permitting holdup. It turned out that Fahr’s porch—which had been built along with the house in 1920—was closer to the curb than the rules allow. Getting permission to replace its pylons required a building permit. But before he could get a building permit, the county’s zoning office told him he needed a use permit from Arlington’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) that would essentially grant an exception to the rules about curb distance. And to obtain the use permit, he needed to commission and submit professional drawings, pay a fee and then wait several months to plead his case at a BZA hearing.

That wasn’t the end of it. The process of applying for the necessary permits revealed other zoning issues on his property, including a shed and an air-conditioning unit that the authorities deemed too close to his lot’s outer edges. His use permit was contingent on rectifying those problems as well.

“It’s a very steep learning curve. I had to take off work four or five times,” says Fahr, whose house has only 960 square feet of living space, but is worth about $675,000 due to its prime location near the Virginia Square Metro station. “I had to get the plat done three times. It’s as if the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. You can get punished for doing things the right way.”

Fahr’s experience is hardly unique. About half of Arlington’s 27,500 detached single-family homes were built before the county overhauled its zoning ordinance in 1950, and therein lies the rub, says Arlington real estate lawyer Barnes Lawson. The revised regulations set standards that were at odds with much of the county’s existing housing stock, thus planting the seeds for procedural headaches that plague well-meaning homeowners to this day.

For example, the 1950 ordinance revamp established a 5,000-square-foot minimum lot size (a little more than a tenth of an acre) for residential properties. As of 2005, roughly 1 in 5 single-family homes in Arlington were situated on lots that are considered “nonconforming” because they are too small by the ordinance’s standards, according to the county’s own data.

The same ordinance decreed that single-family-home lots must be at least 60 feet wide—a move that consigned many of the houses in Arlington’s older, more compact neighborhoods to nonconformity. Fahr’s lot in Ashton Heights is one such offender: It spans only 35 feet from one side to the other.

Other zoning changes enacted in 1950 rendered thousands of existing Arlington houses too close to the curb, or too close to their side and rear fence lines, or lacking sufficient “frontage.” Countless more Arlington properties have fallen out of sync with the rules in recent decades through renovations and additions.

Owners of nonconforming homes are free to live in or sell their properties. But as hundreds of residents like Fahr have discovered the hard way, this de facto grandfathering has limitations where home improvements come into play. When the balcony railings, front steps or porch columns of a nonconforming home begin to deteriorate after decades of wear and tear, its owners must make unsavory choices. Do nothing and risk paying a fine for a crumbling structure that poses a safety hazard. Skip the proper permitting channels on a home repair project and face the possibility of having to pay a penalty and start over. Or suck it up and navigate the bureaucracy that is required for “new construction” that can objectively look like anything but.

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