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

Andrew and Julie Feltman

Neighborhood: Bluemont

Home built: 1953

Home purchased: 2015

Project: Building porticos over their front and side stoops, one of which replaced an awning. The project required a use permit because the porticos would be closer to the front curb and to the adjacent neighbor’s property than the zoning ordinance allows.

Building permit first sought: March 2016

BZA hearing: June 2016

Building permit obtained: June 2016

Work began: July 2016

Project completed: August 2016

Estimated project cost: $20,000

Sometimes the county’s zoning staff will give an application a thumbs-down before it is even subject to BZA consideration. In the fall of 2015, Douglas Park residents Elaine and Terry Eby found their blood pressure rising when they learned their project could be flagged for denial. The couple had already put two additions on the house they bought in 1990 and figured they knew the drill. But the third time was a nail-biter.

The impetus for their third renovation began when their next-door neighbor replaced an enclosed porch with an open one, leaving the side of their house that faced the neighbor’s property more exposed. For privacy reasons, the Ebys decided to enclose and expand their own porch to create a mudroom and breakfast room, at the same time adding a separate entryway that would make the house more accessible for aging in place.

But then they encountered a hurdle: like most Douglas Park properties, their lot fell short of the county-mandated width—which meant that the 4-by-18-foot addition they were proposing would technically be too close to their neighbor’s property, requiring BZA authorization.

“It takes a lot of time and money to go through those hoops and it’s a gamble,” says Elaine Eby, a senior scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency. Paying for professional drawings, a new plat, legal advice and application fees without knowing whether they would be allowed to build the addition, she says, added up to nearly $2,000.

After county staff recommended denial, the Ebys hired Lawson for guidance. They deferred their scheduled BZA hearing, amassed more than 30 signatures from neighbors and obtained a letter of support from the Douglas Park Civic Association president, along with a letter from a local real estate agent stating that their renovation sought to prevent a decline in property value that might otherwise stem from the home’s newfound lack of privacy. They then collected photographs of other neighboring homes (for context and to indicate precedents) and brought six copies of everything to the BZA hearing: one for each of the board members and one for the clerk.

“I just didn’t want to fail,” says Elaine, who considers her home a “sanctuary.”

Once Elaine had made the couple’s case and six neighbors had spoken on their behalf, the BZA deliberated for less than three minutes and granted a use permit. To celebrate, the Ebys invited their neighbors to join them in a champagne victory toast.

Categories: Home & Design