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.

County officials are aware of the system’s logistical shortcomings. Cristol says constituents often tell her that they “went through an entire zoning, permitting and inspections process, only to be told at the finish line that there was some sort of permit they hadn’t gotten or some sort of inspection they hadn’t yet scheduled.” (Many homeowners lament, for example, that shifting environmental requirements, such as those involving grading to prevent water runoff, often result in unexpected delays and significant added costs.)

“I am very interested in improving administrative processes,” Cristol says.

Some procedural fixes are already underway. To educate homeowners about the BZA process, the county is posting more information about nonconforming houses to its Building Arlington website ( and is reaching out to civic associations and homebuilders.

Next up, the county plans to begin facilitating permit applications online to spare homeowners many of the trips to the permitting office now required to present documents and pay fees in person. The goal is to have the online process up and running by the end of 2017, says Helen Duong, a project team member for the One-Stop Arlington Initiatives, a countywide effort to make it easier to do business with the county government.

The backlog isn’t as bad as it used to be, notes BZA member Smith: “It’s gotten better over the past 15-20 years.”

County data corroborates his claim. Between 2000 and 2016, the BZA’s caseload declined, despite a construction boom that increased the number of housing units in Arlington by nearly 25 percent over the same time period. Whereas the panel heard 214 cases in 2000, the average in 2015 was 170.

Particularly helpful to the owners of Arlington’s older houses was a package of zoning changes approved in 2015 that determined, among other things, that interior renovations on nonconforming houses no longer require use permits or variances. (Variances require homeowners to prove that they would experience hardship if denied authorization for a given project, while use permits do not.)

Yet there’s no plan to do the same for minor exterior renovations, says county planner Deborah Albert.

Some observers believe that many homeowners could be spared the hassle of going through this process if county staff were empowered to exercise more discretion. “If they want to do something about this, the county board needs to rewrite the ordinance to let the zoning administrator make determinations that don’t need to go before the BZA,” architect Braddock says.

But Arlova Vonhm, Arlington’s zoning administrator, downplays that possibility. It’s “not really our role to make a value judgement,” she says. “We are just supposed to uphold and enforce the rules as they exist. It’s pretty straightforward.”

As Albert puts it, “Only a legislative body has discretion” to change the ordinance’s language.

At the same time, county leaders acknowledge that there could be more at stake than bypassing a few bureaucratic headaches.

“When you create too many regulatory obstacles to modest home improvements, you could actually be exacerbating the trend in teardown and rebuilding,” Cristol says.

Regulatory excess can also make homeowners reluctant to enhance their properties, says Andrew Feltman.

“I don’t want to go through this process again,” he says. “Just because of the time it wastes.

Before You Rebuild

Thinking about making exterior modifications to an older Arlington home? Read this first.

What’s the difference between a use permit and a building permit? 

Use permits are required for land and building uses that fall outside the rights granted by the county zoning ordinance. A use permit is issued by the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) and essentially authorizes an exception to the rules. Building permits are issued by the Permitting Office & Inspection Services. They are required for most home renovation projects (conforming or not) to ensure that the work is not in violation of safety, environmental, energy and accessibility codes. Owners of nonconforming properties typically must get a use permit or variance before they can receive a building permit.

What is the BZA? 

The BZA is a quasi-judicial panel of volunteer citizens residing in Arlington. The panel is tasked with approving or denying use permits and variances, and hearing appeals to the county zoning administrator’s decisions. The BZA determines whether a new build or addition may be exempt from zoning ordinance restrictions relating to building height, lot coverage or setback distances. The BZA also reviews cases involving fences, driveways and structures like garages and sheds. The Arlington County Circuit Court appoints BZA members to serve renewable five-year terms. Many other states and the District of Columbia rely on similar systems.

When does it meet? 

Arlington BZA hearings are generally held monthly (except January), starting at 7 p.m., at 2100 Clarendon Blvd., Room 307. It takes at least two and a half months to schedule a BZA hearing, regardless of the size and scope of your project.

Who should attend a hearing? 

Either the homeowner or a representative, such as a contractor, lawyer or relative, must be present and speak. Hearings are open to the public and anyone can attend. Neighbors and organizations who support or oppose relevant projects may also speak.

Categories: Home & Design