Sizing Up

The new homes on the block are getting bigger, and neighbors say it’s cramping their style.

When the couple next door to Suzan Charlton sold their house in Lyon Village, the outgoing neighbors hosted a party to welcome the new buyers. “That’s just the type of neighborhood we are,” says Charlton, who’s lived there since 2001. “We hold a block party every summer. We do a progressive dinner in winter. We’re good friends.”

So Charlton was taken aback by what happened next. The new buyers all but disappeared, she says. “Until the bulldozer showed up. Now the cute little blue farmhouse is gone, and up went a new building that’s within millimeters of the zoning requirements. The deck is 6 feet from my property line. I know that because I went out in my pajamas to measure it.”

 A phone conversation with the new owners didn’t help matters. “I was told, ‘It’s all perfectly legal, and you can’t do anything about it,’ ” she recalls.

By the time the new neighbors moved in, Charlton was resigned to the situation.  “We sent over a bottle of wine and a ‘welcome to the neighborhood’ note,” she says.

But the whole experience left a bitter aftertaste. “When my neighbors on the other side doubled the size of their house, they told us what was going on,” Charlton explains. “I don’t expect blueprint approval. I didn’t even expect anything to change. But I would have expected some communication.”

Rifts like these are becoming increasingly common in Arlington’s thriving real estate market as older homes are demolished and replaced with bigger ones. From January 2010 to September 2011, local builders tore down 211 homes and began construction on 239 new houses, according to the county permitting office. Reactions from neighbors can be especially acrimonious when a lot is subdivided and a single home is replaced with two or more of comparable (or larger) size.

While every scenario is different, there are common themes. Neighbors fret that the new architecture doesn’t match the visual character of their street. They’re offended by new dwellings that dwarf existing homes. They see the diminishing buffers between houses as a breach of privacy. They mourn the loss of mature trees.

Add safety to the long list of concerns in Arlington Ridge, where a developer’s plan to replace a single house on a 25,000-square-foot lot with three new homes has sparked outrage among existing residents.

“Three new houses will add at least six more cars…so you’re adding substantial traffic [to our quiet street],” says Nick Freshman, a third-generation Arlingtonian who lives with his wife and daughter in the house his mother-in-law grew up in. “There are eight children under the age of 5 just on our cul-de-sac.”

In response, some members of the Arlington Ridge Civic Association are mobilizing to challenge whether or not the current plans (which would also encroach on an adjacent park) are allowable “by right,” as the developer claims. “It’s unclear what input neighbors really have, but we are exploring our options,” Freshman says. “People understand that he paid $950,000 for the lot and he has to build something. But one or two bungalows preserving the tree canopy and the park space behind the lot sounds a little more palatable to me.”

Although the county has parameters in place that regulate this type of single-family home construction, some see the rules as onerous and ineffective.

“It just seems like there are two polar extremes in Arlington,” says Dan Miller, who got a crash course in county zoning after the one-story ranch next to his modest Larchmont home was replaced by a 5,100-square-foot new build. “You’re either not allowed to put up anything or you can put up the Taj Mahal.”

Such grievances aren’t new to Arlington’s elected officials. In the early 2000s as the housing boom heated up, the county’s zoning office was flooded with complaints about the size, architectural style and placement of new homes sprouting up on existing lots. One county report even included photos of prime teardown offenders to illustrate the problem. “There was a groundswell of concern about McMansions,” remembers Arlington County Supervisor Jay Fisette. “People were asking the county, ‘Can’t you stop this? It looms over my house.’ ”

To many existing residents, the new, larger houses constituted an invasion.

“A teardown is a change in a neighborhood,” observes Daniel P. McMillen, an economics professor at the University of Illinois, who has studied teardowns for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass., where he is a visiting fellow. “People have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in their homes, so this conservatism about change is not surprising.”

Whether that change is for better or worse is the ideological divide where battle lines are drawn.

“I can understand how people can get upset. They think, ‘There used to be a big tree there that shaded my house, and now I am looking at a wall of siding,’ ”says David Springberg, whose company, Spring Street Development, has built about 60 to 70 single-family homes in Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church and McLean since it was founded in 1999.

 

Builder/developer David Springberg says he’s just trying to make a living by giving new buyers what they want. Photo by Amy MooreThe county’s initial solution, as approved by its elected board of supervisors over a period of years in the early 2000s, involved changes in zoning requirements that remain in effect today. New homes are subject to a 35-foot height limit (although height is calculated via a complicated equation that allows for loopholes) and must be located a certain distance from property lines. Generally, that’s 25 feet from the street and 10 feet from a side-yard property line.

New builds also have to adhere to certain lot coverage restrictions. For example, a new home on a 5,000-square-foot lot can occupy up to 56 percent of the lot, whereas a new home on a 20,000-square-foot lot cannot cover more than 35 percent of the property. New houses built on “pipe stem” lots (which are created when a larger lot is subdivided and the new homes share a driveway) require 25-foot setbacks in all directions.

“The goal in each of these cases was to create standards that would make it more difficult to do the more egregious developments,” Fisette explains. “We knew from the beginning we couldn’t do everything. We have property rights in Virginia, and you cannot control and dictate taste. The rules in place certainly allow someone to build a very, very ugly home, but most people in the community don’t do that.”

Municipalities have limited options when it comes to regulating teardowns, according to McMillen. They can set regulations, as Arlington has done, and hope for the best, or they can require every project to undergo a county design review, “which can really increase the cost of building,” he points out. “It also breeds uniformity.”

In Arlington, scale is the point of contention more often than aesthetics. An attractive new house can comply with the county’s size restrictions but still seem gigantic compared with its older neighbors. Some see the visual discrepancy as a violation of the social compact—one that sets a dangerous precedent. “With every teardown that becomes a monstrosity, you diminish the character of the place,” Charlton says. “Just because you can build it doesn’t mean you should.”

Dan Miller and Kelly Stillwell would agree with that sentiment.

When the couple moved from McLean to Arlington in 2010, they paid $620,000 for a Cape Cod on a tree-lined street just off Washington Boulevard. Then the one-story rambler next door was sold to a developer for $590,000—at which point it was knocked down and replaced with a 5,100-square-foot, $1.3 million house (a speculative build that, at press time, was still for sale). During the planning phase, the new home’s proposed size so horrified the couple and their neighbors that they banded together in protest. “We canvassed our block and the street behind us, and literally 100 percent of the people were against it,” says Stillwell. They consulted experts. They visited county government offices multiple times to see the plans. One neighbor even filed Freedom of Information Act requests.

But in the end it made no difference. “By the time we were able to get up to speed with what recourse—if any—we had, it was too late,” Miller says. Public hearings are conducted by the county only if the builder requests a variance. If the home plans follow regulations there is no opportunity for neighbors to comment and press for changes. “It was frustrating to me,” Miller says. “The county seems to lean toward the side of the developer.”

Builders and developers, meanwhile, say they’re only giving buyers what they want: a new home with more elbow room in a great location.

“Arlington as an area has only become more desirable over the years,” says Brian Normile, managing member of BCN Homes and BCN Design/Build, an Arlington-based company that builds between six and 11 homes annually. “The schools in Arlington are first-rate. I have clients moving from the District who have school-age kids. There are so many amenities and entertainment options.”

What don’t these buyers like about Arlington? The existing housing stock.

Much of that has to do with age. More than half (54.8 percent) of the county’s homes were built in the 1950s or earlier, according to U.S. Census figures, with floor plans and features that some find charming and others find unworkable. “The typical Arlington house has little rooms, a little kitchen, and all the rooms are separated. It doesn’t fit the lifestyle of today,” says Bob Braddock, founder of Red House Architects and a former in-house architect for the local builder Mickey Simpson Ltd. “People want things today that are open.”

 To meet that demand, builders are tearing down the old to make way for spacious new homes with open floor plans, big kitchens, great rooms, high ceilings and master bedroom suites.

That’s what Mickey Simpson did for Jeanie Brandt and Gary Armistead. The couple hired the builder in 2006 to tear down and replace the 1,200-square-foot house they’d lived in for eight years in Westover Village. “As quaint as that house might have looked from the street, it was not a house for the 21st century,” Brandt says.

In its place, they built a 3,500-square-foot bungalow with 9-foot ceilings, four bedrooms, three-and-a-half bathrooms and plenty of space to host extended family gatherings. (Armistead’s mother also lives in one of the home’s two master suites with her caregiver.)

Although the old house was demolished, the couple worked carefully with the builder and an arborist to save a big tree in the front yard. “We told our neighbors, ‘We promise not to build a McMansion,’ ” Brandt says. “It was important to us not to make our neighbors mad.”

Of course new homes in Arlington don’t come cheap. Local builders say a new house built on an existing lot typically runs $1.2 million and up these days. Much of that price tag is determined by the value of the land itself, which typically accounts for 20 to 40 percent of the total sale price. In popular neighborhoods, that would be “$600,000 minimum [for the lot alone], and it goes up from there,” Normile says. “I’m paying more for land now in Clarendon than during the boom.”

“A lot of people think developers and builders are rapacious, but it’s just economics,” Braddock says. “They have to cover their risk. If the house is priced at $1.5 million, subtract the first $800,000 for the land.”

In a teardown deal, the prize isn’t the existing house. It’s the location. “The places that are most attractive for teardowns are the places with the highest land prices,”McMillen says, “and the price of land is determined by how much people are willing to pay for housing in that area.”

That adds up to quite a bit in Arlington, which had a median home value of $534,200 in early January, according to real-estate site Zillow.com. (Nationally, that figure is $147,800.)

For teardowns to be economically viable, “you need old junk in desirable neighborhoods,” says Clarke Simpson, vice president of Mickey Simpson, the home building firm founded by his father. “People say, ‘Oh, those houses are so nice and quaint.’ Well, they’re also tiny little houses that no one wants to live in.”

Some builders question privately whether anti-teardown sentiment stems from economic envy among residents who fear they are being priced out of their own neighborhoods.

“You have your little Cape Cod for which you paid $200,000 and now those are going for $750,000—and they are being torn down—and you realize you couldn’t afford to do that,” observes one local builder. “I think there’s a little jealousy there.”

Tensions between old and new have led to some very ugly battles. When Springberg, operating as Sunnyside Development, LLC, purchased two properties on North Ivanhoe Street in 2005 with the intention of tearing them down and building new homes in their place, he ended up fighting with the neighbors for nearly two years.

“I was the first person to buy a house in the neighborhood [as a teardown], and the neighbors were very opposed,” Springberg says. “I think they thought if they didn’t stop me, they were afraid of what would happen. Their fear was, ‘If we lose one house, we’ll lose all the houses.’ So they sued me.”

Their argument, as detailed in Dysart et. al, vs. Sunnyside Development LLC, was that the builder’s new homes violated the neighborhood’s height limits. An Arlington circuit judge disagreed. That 2007 ruling was upheld by the Virginia State Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case, vindicating Springberg. He ended up tearing down three houses on Ivanhoe and building six new ones.

 

Arlington residents Jeanie Brandt and Gary Armistead hired Mickey Simpson to raze their old home in Westover Village and build new. Photo by Amy MooreIt was an expensive victory, Springberg says, noting that he spent $125,000 on lawyers to defend himself and his bank against the nine plaintiffs. He estimates his company also lost an additional $200,000 due to construction delays caused by the litigation.

But the story didn’t end there. After the two-year court case ended, one couple that had joined the lawsuit sold their home, ironically, to another builder. When that deal fell through, Springberg bought the property himself and demolished his former adversaries’ home.

“It was a satisfying day,” he says. But at the same time, he recognizes his position as precarious. As a member of the community, he wants the neighbors to be happy.  As a businessman, he needs to build something buyers want in order to turn a profit.

“At the end of the day, you have to sell the houses,” he says. “I’ve built in every neighborhood in Arlington, and at some point I will likely be back in those neighborhoods. Arlington is like a small town. You’ll run into people at the Harris Teeter. Your kids will play baseball with them.”  Good will is paramount.­­

One of the few points that builders and neighbors agree upon is this: Arlington homes are small.

After the birth of their first son, Yorktown residents Bonnie and La Fonte Nesbitt wanted more room, but decided to stay put once they realized they couldn’t accept the trade-offs that came with moving to a bigger house (one they could afford) outside the Beltway. “Thank God we didn’t do that,” Bonnie says, looking back. The commute.”

Instead they remodeled and added a second story to their 1950s ranch home, boosting its size from 2,000 to 3,200 square feet. “Our house had good bones, so we could renovate,” she says.

But not every large-scale home improvement goes as smoothly as the Nesbitts’. Some area homeowners have discovered problems in their vintage dwellings at extremely inconvenient times—as in, when their home is in the middle of a major renovation. That’s when the project they were expecting would cost $200,000 to $450,000 turns into a deeper money pit.

“A lot of Arlington was built as inexpensive housing for government workers…[when] there were no building inspections,” Springberg says. He recalls one nightmare involving a house that was under renovation next to one of his new builds. “They found out it had been built without footings [underground pillars that provide critical support for a home’s foundation]. The whole back wall of the house fell down. They had a three-story house on top of a slab.”

Normile, whose company also does renovations, has similar horror stories to report. “I’ve found wiring covered by cloth [a fire hazard], so you have to rewire the house. I’ve had plumbers find pipes that are a combination of lead [which can leach into drinking water] and copper, so you’ve got to replumb the house,” he says. “You end up having to go backwards to go forwards.”

That’s partly why some residents, like Jeanie Brandt and Gary Armistead, choose to demo and start fresh. “We thought about renovating, but too much needed to be replaced,” Brandt says. “There was old electrical, old plumbing, and it was too small.”

Plus, the original house was energy inefficient, Armistead adds. “You can’t insulate these old things. They’re all concrete and plaster [so] there’s no room to add insulation. You have to Sheetrock the interior walls and put the insulation there, which means you lose square footage.”

When April and Ryan Shores bought their 1,200-square-foot, one-and-a-half-story house in Lyon Village in 2006, they anticipated a remodel or new build in their future. “We outgrew the house pretty quickly,” April says. (The couple has five children between the ages of 1 and 11.) “We absolutely would not have been able to live in that house the way it was.”

The Shores began exploring their options and eventually chose a whole-house renovation, using the existing foundation to build an otherwise new three-story, five-bedroom home. 

“Most builders suggested it would be easier and less expensive to start over to make the house suitable for our expanding family, but it seemed wasteful to completely tear down…without regard to the history of the house,” says April. “One of the most charming features of our 1939 home prior to renovation [which they kept] was the front porch. It has been a great place to sit and visit with neighbors,” she says.

 

Bob Braddock, principal of  Red House Architects, has  designed many renovations and additions around town, as well as new homes.  Photo by Amy MoorePorch or no porch, some neighbors will have beefs with a larger house no matter what, even if its architecture is pretty. Particularly if it means they no longer have the sun for their side garden. Or, if the bedroom window that once framed sky now looks out on siding. Or, if an informal gathering spot where four backyards meet disappears when one neighbor erects a tall fence to regain the privacy lost by the height of a newly constructed home or addition.

That’s when concerns arise about the cumulative effect on the street, the block and the community.

“It starts to change the fabric of the neighborhood,” says Larchmont resident Kelly Stillwell. “If it happens once, it will happen twice. [We] were drawn to the charm of the neighborhood. To think that, one day, this street could be all teardowns would change the neighborhood.”

Her husband agrees. “We could have moved out west to Loudoun, but we didn’t. We liked the vintage of the homes in Arlington, the neighborhoods, and the fact [that] you could walk to things,” Dan Miller says.

“Is this going to become the norm? And if it is, what does that mean for Arlington and what we like about Arlington?”

Arlington resident Alison Rice covered housing’s boom and bust from 2000 to 2010 as a writer and editor for Builder, Big Builder and Multifamily Executive magazines.

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