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.

Case Study

Photos by Liz Lynch

Payam Fahr

Neighborhood: Ashton Heights

Home built: 1920

Home purchased: 1986 (Fahr obtained the house from his mother in 2015. She purchased it when he was a child and had been using it as a rental property.)

Project: Refurbishing a deteriorated front porch and replacing its rotted pylons, which county inspectors had cited as a code violation. He needed a use permit to do so because the porch, which was original to the home, was closer to the front curb than the county zoning ordinance allows. The property was found to have other nonconformities, including a shed that was encroaching on the next-door neighbor’s lot and an improperly located air-conditioning unit.

Building permit first sought: November 2015

BZA hearing: September 2016

Status: Fahr applied for a building permit in January 2017 and expects to complete his project in early 2017.

Estimated project cost: $9,000

Can’t Arlington’s elected officials simply vote to change the rules? According to County Board chair Jay Fisette, doing so is not as simple as it may seem. “Any time you refresh the zoning ordinance you have to do it carefully and inclusively,” he says. “We’re always trying to assess the unintended consequences.”

What kinds of unintended consequences? “Once you approve a change, it applies to everybody,” cautions Deborah Albert, one of Arlington’s principal planners and the staff member tasked with overseeing the drafting of all ordinance amendments. “It may be totally reasonable for a modest home on a nonconforming lot to encroach an extra six inches into their front setback, especially if that’s consistent with what all their neighbors are doing. But it may not be appropriate if their neighbor tears down their modest house and maxes out their height at 35 feet, maxes out their lot coverage and builds a new house in that same vein. You’re not going to have one set of exceptions that apply to old houses and another set of exceptions that apply to new houses.”

At face value, some hurdles required for the simplest exterior improvements seem to defy logic, says Rock Spring resident Ken Robbins, who in early 2016 discovered that he needed BZA authorization to replace the front deck on his nonconforming home with a porch. The construction was delayed six months when the county demanded that he obtain a use permit because of setback issues—even though the porch he sought to build was nearly identical to one just a few doors down.

I was in the Army for 20 years and I respect authority,” says Robbins. “I used to teach a class to cadets at West Point about bureaucracy. It is important to have, but it can easily creep away from leaders. This process has become too onerous for homeowners. We have a great county government, but if they don’t want people to tear down their houses they should make it easier to fix them up.”

Local architect Bob Braddock, principal at Red House Architects, is sympathetic. He says he’s heard similar complaints from clients, adding that after all the procedural hassles, such projects are almost always approved anyway. “Porches allow people to be the sentinels of the neighborhood. They’re a universal good and inherently social,” he says. “Arlington County is pro-porch. I’ve never seen them turn anyone down.”

Still, the wait time can be a deterrent. If, as the owner of a nonconforming house, “you tear your porch down, you lose your right to rebuild it unless you get a use permit,” says real estate attorney Lawson, who represents roughly 33 clients per year at Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax BZA hearings, and sometimes serves as an expert witness in other cases. “If it’s been there for decades, why can’t you just replace it?” he says, echoing a common refrain from his clients.

Adding to homeowner peeves is the reality that all BZA applications enter the same pipeline—whether the request involves swapping out a splintered porch or completely razing and replacing an older home with a new build—and the wait time for a hearing is at least two and a half months. Homeowners seeking permits can spend hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars on fees and professional drawings with no guarantee that they’ll be allowed to move forward.

They’re also required to seek buy-in from their neighbors, insofar as BZA approval is contingent on determining whether the proposed changes will inconvenience or harm neighbors or alter the character of the neighborhood. (This requirement is usually a formality, but feuds between neighbors can delay the approval of construction permits.)

Categories: Home & Design