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.

Charles Smith, a labor lawyer, has served on the Arlington BZA since 1999. Like the other four members of the panel, he is a volunteer. He says that he does the work because the process, while arduous for all involved, is necessary: “To whom much is given, much is required. I have the patience for it because I’m a communitarian and a nerd.”

Case Study

Photo by Liz Lynch

Ken and Heidi Robbins

Neighborhood: Rock Spring

Home built: 1954

Home purchased: 2015

Project: Replacing a front deck with a covered front porch roughly the same size. Doing so required a use permit because the overhang above the porch would extend three feet closer to the curb than the zoning ordinance allows.

Building permit first sought: February 2016

BZA hearing: July 2016

Building permit obtained: July 2016

Work began: September 2016

Project completed: December 2016

Estimated project cost: $35,000

Still, homeowners may find their patience tested by the red tape.

Take Andrew and Julie Feltman, who in December 2015 purchased a fixer-upper in Arlington’s Bluemont neighborhood. After months of interior renovations, they were ready to move into the house with their young son. Their contractor was just putting the finishing touches on some exterior improvements—installing porticos over the front and side stoops that they had carefully designed to match the character of their street. Previously, their side entryway had lacked any shelter altogether, and the front door had been covered by an awning the couple considered ugly.

That’s when county inspectors halted the work for reasons that, to the Feltmans, seemed like an exercise in semantics. Arlington classifies awnings as “temporary” structures—whether they’re made of long-lasting copper or plexiglass, or from shorter-lived canvas or aluminum—whereas porticos are considered a permanent extension of the roof. As such, the porticos were subject to setback restrictions that hadn’t applied to the awning. Though the new overhang above the Feltmans’ front door occupied about the same amount of space as the awning had, it was deemed closer to the curb than zoning rules allowed. And the side overhang was technically too close to their next-door neighbors’ property line.

While their neighbors voiced no objections, overcoming this hurdle dragged out the Feltmans’ renovation by another five months. “It just seemed like with the difference between the letter of the ordinance and the spirit of the ordinance being so small, it should not be a big deal,” Andrew Feltman says, adding that the proposed changes constituted not only an aesthetic upgrade, but a safety improvement. “During the winter, as the snow melted, there was an iceberg on the steps because the awning didn’t offer enough protection.”

On the evening of his scheduled BZA hearing in June 2016, Feltman waited more than two hours for his turn. Once he was up, the board took three minutes to consider and approve his request for a use permit. The county issued the building permit he needed soon thereafter.

Categories: Home & Design