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.

How does the BZA reach decisions? 

A majority voice vote by the five-member BZA is required for project approval. Should any members be absent and the board deadlocks, applicants may defer for a second shot. BZA members are briefed on cases beforehand by county planning staff. The board issues rulings on the spot. Homeowners may appeal BZA decisions to the Arlington County Circuit Court.

Before you apply for a permit:

>> To avoid construction delays, determine in advance whether your project will require a use permit or a variance from the BZA. (Again, variances require homeowners to prove that they would experience hardship if denied authorization for a given project, while use permits do not.)

>> Finalize your design before you apply to avoid the risk of having to reapply, pay more fees and wait for another hearing. Be aware that you must consent to having county staff enter and photograph your property, and that your application, including some personal information, will be posted online.

>> Tell your neighbors that you are seeking BZA approval for work on your home so they will not be alarmed when the county posts notices and sends letters alerting neighbors about your application. Let them know that county staff will visit your street to take photographs.

>> To strengthen your case, collect signatures from neighbors on a petition supporting your project and submit it to the BZA.

What else should my application include?

>> Paperwork (both written and drawn) explaining what you want to do and why.

>> A fee, usually ranging between $348 and $541 for basic renovations and repairs. (The fee for a permit to build a new house is $2,689.)

>> A plat of your house, drawn to scale by a professional. To meet official requirements, the plat must be less than 10 years old and show all improvements to the property. All dimensions must match. In most cases, plats should be on legal-size paper, although the document size may depend on the paper used by the surveyor who drew the plat. Submit your plat in person to the county zoning division to make sure your application is on track.

>> Complete floor plans for all levels of the house where work is to be done. Cross-sectional framing plans are optional but encouraged.

>> Architectural drawings of the intended project. The county advises but does not require applicants to hire a professional architect or designer. However, submitting poorly made drawings can mean having to reapply, pay more fees and wait again. In some cases, the staff may also recommend that you hire a surveyor.

One to two weeks before your hearing:

>> Watch for guidance from the county zoning office, which will recommend approval or denial of your project.

>> Get ready to address the recommendation in your remarks.

>> Prepare to bring neighbors who support your project—especially if county staff have recommended to the BZA that it deny your application (more on that below).

On the day of your hearing:

>> Review the agenda and practice your remarks.

>> Arrive by 7 p.m., regardless of the schedule. Your case could be heard earlier (or later) than you think. Simple cases may be over within five minutes. Complicated cases can take an hour or longer for the BZA to deliberate.

>> Since hearings can last as long as five hours, have contingency plans to stay as late as midnight. Make flexible travel and caregiving arrangements.

Other tips for advance prep:

>> Before you prepare your remarks, observe a hearing or listen to a recording of one posted to the BZA website (

>> Write an outline of what you will say, keeping in mind that applicants get up to five minutes to speak, regardless of their case’s complexity.

>> Address why your project will not inconvenience neighbors or pose a health or safety risk; is consistent with the character of your neighborhood; and will not significantly reduce the property’s foliage.

>> Consider mentioning how long you’ve lived in this home and when you moved to Arlington; why you love your house; and why you are repairing or upgrading the property. Offer assurances that your project will not negatively impact property values or threaten the public welfare.

>> If you are seeking a variance, be sure to explain why being unable to proceed with your project would pose a burden to you.

>> Some BZA permits are granted with little deliberation, but don’t assume your proposal is certain to be rubber-stamped. BZA members reject a dozen or more requests per year. If county staff have recommended to the BZA that it deny your application, bring neighbors to vouch for your plans. Individuals who support or object must keep their comments to two minutes. Neighbors may also submit letters of support up until two weeks prior to the hearing.

>> Ask your civic association for a statement of support. Present photos to show precedents for similar projects in your neighborhood. Consider hiring a real estate lawyer and consulting with a real estate agent.

Categories: Home & Design
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