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F.C. Council Punts on Controversial Plan To Prevent Development on Smaller Lots

The Falls Church City Council, under fire from homeowners for considering a measure to halt development on small, so-called “sub-standard,” residential lots in the City, moved swiftly to defer action on the item at its meeting this Monday night.

Mayor Robin Gardner, in comments to the News-Press following the meeting, said there will be “substantial changes” made to the wording of the proposed ordinance before it comes up for final approval now in mid-October.

“I don’t know yet how we are going to change it, but we do not intend to decrease the value of anyone’s property. We also seek for the community to keep its neighborhood character by limiting the McMansionizing of sub-standard lots,” Mayor Gardner said.

Stung by a Page One report in last week’s News-Press that F.C. Planning Commission chair Ruth Rodgers called the measure a “deprivation” of property rights, a stream of citizens came forth Monday to urge the Council against the action, including former F.C. school teacher Dudley McDonald and one of the region’s most prominent realtors, Merelyn Kaye.

The measure would have prevented the owner of a residential property from selling off a portion for development of a new home. Many properties in the City of Falls Church now consist of more than one “sub-standard” lot, “sub-standard” being defined as lots smaller than a 1944 law permitted for development, but that since they were established prior to that date, retained their rights to development.

In recent years, during the housing boom in the region, homeowners realized the financial gain from breaking off one of more of the underlying “sub-standard” lots composing their property and selling it to someone interested in building a new home.

To some in the community, this has prompted a ruining of the residential character of Falls Church, since existing zoning laws allowed for the construction of large so-called “McMansion” homes on the small lots.

A bevy of zoning changes, including three adopted Monday and more slated for final approval in October, have been considered by the City Council to stem this trend. However, the one section that proposed prohibiting development on “sub-standard” lots, altogether, was considered “over the top,” and was withdrawn Monday.

Among those homeowners objecting Monday was Ben Fairfax of Highland Avenue, who asked, “What is it we are trying to fix here, anyway? Is it the aesthetic preferences of certain citizens? If it is a matter of personal preferences, I’d say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

McDonald, who has spoken out against the measure on numerous occasions, noted that “value judgments” on aesthetics had, indeed, entered into the Council’s deliberations on the merits of the proposal, reflected in “adjectives and descriptors such as ‘ugly’ and ‘twin towers’” (the latter referring to two homes under construction side by side on E. Broad—Ed.).

McDonald’s comments, in particular, were singled out by Council member Dan Maller as having caused him to reconsider the merits of the proposal. “Nobody is trying to take away rights,” he added.

Councilman David Snyder said that if the measure had come up for a vote Monday, he would have voted against it. It smacked of discrimination, he said, and a violation of property rights. “We have to do a better job of focusing laser-like on the specific problems we’re trying to address, and not be too broad,” he said. “Our goal is simply to close some gaps and loopholes.”

“We need to devise a more thoughtful approach to sub-standard lots,” Mayor Gardner conceded. “There are some who are developing very attractive homes on them, and others who are not, whose efforts seem to ruin the rhythm of the City.”

Speaking from written remarks Monday, McDonald said, “During the next couple of decades, I believe the City of Falls Church will become a major hub of the expanding urban metropolitan area’s transportation network and all the urban development that will come with it. As a result, more people will want to live here for any number of reasons. To the benefit of us all, the City needs to embrace the coming change and not try to restrict it. Why not become the leaders of the future City rather than the repairers of the past?”

Merelyn Kaye noted the loss to the value of property that the ban on “sub-standard” lot development would introduce. “If someone has a property that is being taxed at a value of $980,000 but by banning his ability to develop it, he can sell it for only $580,000, does that mean you are going to refund to him the difference in the taxes he’s been paying?,” she asked.

Taking the opposite view, Melissa Teats of Ridge Place, who has spearheaded as a citizen activist the push for residential zoning reform, said the issue of property rights extends to the “property rights of neighbors,” noting that new development can often impinge on neighboring lots, blocking views and adding to water runoff.

New measures more carefully defining height limits and house orientation were passed Monday by a 6-1 vote with new Councilman Dan Sze voting “No.”

Sze said a better approach would restricting development would be to offer bonuses for homeowners who built front porches and put their garages in the rear, for example. He said that the economic analysis that comes from evaluating properties by a “floor to area ratio” (FAR) standard should also be applied to residential property.