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.

Elaine and Terry Eby (far right) with the neighbors who testified on their behalf. Photos by Liz Lynch

Terry and Elaine Eby

Neighborhood: Douglas Park

Home built: 1950

Home purchased: 1990

Project: Replacing a side porch with an enclosed breakfast room and mudroom plus a more accessible entryway. It required a use permit for two reasons: They were proposing an enclosed structure, and that structure would be only three feet away from the neighbor’s property.

Building permit first sought: October 2015

BZA hearing: July 2016

Building permit obtained: October 2016

Work began: October 2016

Project completed: Anticipated in early 2017

Estimated project cost: $35,000-$40,000

How many single-family  homes in Arlington are nonconforming? Arlington County doesn’t track that data. Its 2015 Report on Status of Nonconforming One- and Two-Family Dwellings lacks even a rough estimate, indicating only that “many” homes fall into this category. Lawson, the real estate attorney, estimates that at least half of all detached Arlington homes are at odds with the zoning ordinance in one way or another.

Will that change? Arlington’s zoning regulations, like all zoning regulations, are intended “to amortize the existence of nonconformities,” over time, the report acknowledges.

“Amortize,” a word commonly used in reference to paying off debts, stems from a root that means “to kill.” At least in theory, that would suggest phasing out properties with lots that are too narrow, porches that are less than 25 feet from the curb, and basements with bang-your-head-on-the-ceiling clearances.

One antidote to nonconformity is to raze and replace old properties with new, compliant ones, as often happens. From 2000 to 2014, builders demolished an average of 103 single-family homes per year in Arlington, according to county statistics. But teardowns have stirred neighborhood tensions as bigger, taller houses have replaced smaller, older homes, and local leaders say they want to protect the jurisdiction’s architectural heritage.

“I’m personally not a fan of oversized homes,” says County Board chair Fisette. “The vision I have, as part of our sustainable future, is to see the reinvestment and protection of the character and tree canopy of our residential neighborhoods.”

Preserving Arlington’s older housing stock can yield economic dividends, adds County Board vice chair Katie Cristol: “We have a good supply of modest single-family homes and I think they play an incredibly important piece in sustaining Arlington’s middle class. That’s absolutely one of the things we have thought about a lot: How do you ensure that there are homes at a price point that families can afford and seniors can afford to stay in such that we can have a full diversity of community?”

Homeowners seeking to beautify their older abodes by embarking on extensive (and expensive) renovation projects can also find the BZA process onerous, especially when they encounter confusing and conflicting information on their way to a hearing.

In September of 2016, Greg Mullan and his wife were preparing to defend plans to gut and enlarge their Ashton Heights house. Shortly before their scheduled BZA hearing, the couple and their architect realized that county zoning staff had failed to advertise all the specifics of their proposal (as is required, for public comment) in advance of their hearing. The architect reported the error and was told that the BZA needed more time to consider the Mullans’ application, even though the homeowners were not at fault.

Mullan attended the hearing anyway. “I wasn’t going to not show up after months of waiting,” he says. “They need to step up to the plate and provide a certain level of customer service. Not only is it financially prohibitive to buy a home in Arlington, it’s ridiculous in terms of the time and money [required for property improvements].” The BZA granted the Mullans a use permit a month later.

Categories: Home & Design