Remodel or Teardown?
For homeowners who want more space, each option has its pros and cons.
Arlington’s zoning parameters are well intentioned. Many of the current restrictions were designed to preserve the charm and character of older neighborhoods lined with quaint homes and mature trees. But the regulatory hurdles can make certain renovations so bureaucratic, time-consuming and costly that homeowners figure they might as well just buy new.
This scenario has left some remodelers frustrated. “[Arlington has] closed down the lane for renovation and widened the highway for turning this into Burke,” says Michael Sauri, owner of the Arlington design-build firm TriVistaUSA, referencing what he views as a proliferation of cookie-cutter new homes in neighboring parts of Northern Virginia. “Not that there’s anything wrong with Burke, if that’s what you want.”
Teardowns have become commonplace in McLean, where lots tend to be larger and Fairfax County zoning rules are friendly to new construction. Winn estimates that roughly half of the houses in his own neighborhood, Franklin Park, have been torn down and rebuilt in the past decade. He says he gets monthly requests from developers wanting to buy his home, just for the land underneath it.
Many Arlington neighborhoods are already following suit.
“Some of [Arlington’s] current regulations don’t support a large-scale home addition project,” says Tim Winter, president and owner of Fairfax-based Paradigm Building Group, which does both teardowns and renovations throughout Arlington and Falls Church. In 2016, Winter says, about 70 percent of his company’s work involved major home additions, with the remaining 30 percent being new construction. In 2017, the ratio was reversed.
One of Arlington County’s least popular regulatory hurdles, at least among builders, is the so-called “2,500-square-foot rule” that applies to land disturbance. The rule calculates the total square footage of a construction project to include not only the footprint of the house itself (and any planned additions), but also buffer areas—outside spaces where construction materials are stored or disposed of, as well as lanes that provide access to the home.
It doesn’t take much to hit that 2,500-square-foot limit when you consider that the equation includes a 10-foot buffer zone on each side of the house, Winter says. The buffers apply even in cases where the project is a “pop-top” that simply adds a second story without changing the home’s footprint.
Exceeding the 2,500-square-foot limit triggers a host of additional (read: expensive) requirements, many of them related to stormwater management and runoff. Especially if the homeowners have to hire a civil engineer to do a grading study.
“That’s really where the costs get in,” Winter says. An engineering study alone will add $8,000 to $12,000 to the budget, and that’s not including the cost of landscaping features that may be required as a result, like permeable pavers and planter boxes lined with gravel to catch runoff from gutters. (Falls Church City also has a 2,500-square-foot rule, he says, but the requirements around stormwater management aren’t as onerous.)
All told, Sauri estimates that Arlington’s stormwater requirements can increase a renovation project’s costs by $20,000 to $30,000 or more. Need planter boxes? Tack on another $20,000. Infi ltration trenches? Those will cost you an additional $5,000 at the very minimum.
That puts the line item for stormwater management roughly on par with the cost of site grading for a new build on an empty lot—which Springberg of Spring Street Development pegs at around $50,000.
The land disturbance rules aren’t gratuitous, says Arlington County Board vice chair Christian Dorsey. They are designed to ensure that water soaks into the ground instead of running off into sewers and, eventually, into the Chesapeake Bay.
The rules also protect neighbors, he points out, by mitigating construction site runoff that might otherwise lead to swamped yards and foundation damage to adjacent properties.
Dorsey says the county is mindful of the expense, and soon will introduce stock plans for dry wells and other water management alternatives that homeowners can install without hiring an engineer. “This would give people a ready-made solution that’s not cost-prohibitive to design and implement,” he explains.
By comparison, Fairfax County sets its threshold for land disturbance at 5,000 square feet, and allows homeowners to do renovations in phases to avoid going over the limit.
That makes no sense to Dorsey. “I’m not interested in encouraging people to game the system,” he says. The end goal is still environmental protection.