F.C. Push to Impose New Residential Restrictions is Thrown Off Schedule

New unexpected factors threw off the Falls Church City Council’s momentum to further restrict development on residential properties this week, pushing final decisions on limiting lot coverage and building heights into December.

The Council has already given preliminary approval to two measures, one which would limit the “impervious coverage” of residential lots to 30% of the total area and the other which would cap the height of buildings on so-called “substandard lots” to a level below what is permitted on normal lots.

But the Council was thrown off its original plan of finally OK’ing these measures at this Monday’s meeting, owing to, among other things, a surprise outcome of the Planning Commission deliberation on the matters last week.

Instead of giving an expected rubber stamp approval, the Planners wound up deadlocked in a 3-3 vote on the lot coverage matter, which meant it did not recommend passage, and then tabled consideration of the second matter because it was being legally challenged.

As a result, the City Council Monday pushed off its final deliberations on the matter until after a slated December 4 work session with the Planning Commission to iron out the issues. They were also concerned that City Attorney Roy Thorpe had not yet developed a formal response to the legal challenge.

 “Show me one respected architect in the City who thinks further restricting lot coverage is a good idea,” veteran Falls Church architect Paul Barkley quipped to the News-Press Monday.

Bob Burnett, a member of the Planning Commission who voted “no” on the legislation, said it was Barkley’s petition to his board last week, along with others from City architects Tom Hemphill and Charles Moore, that “gave pause” to others on his board who might have shown up that night favoring approval.

 “I think the Council should listen to its constituents before making a decision,” Burnett said. He was joined on the Planning board in casting “no” voters by Ruth Rodgers and Peter Holran.

The proposed lot coverage restriction ordinance would reduce from 35% to 30% the amount of a residential lot that could be covered by “impervious” surfaces, ranging from houses, parking garages, driveways, patios, stone pathways and storage units. It would apply in any case where more than 2,500 square feet on a lot was “disturbed,” i.e. being developed.

 “I think we had a lot of concern for unintended consequences,” Burnett said. Some of those, he suggested, could be that it would compel builders to place garages at the front, rather than rear, of a property to shorten the driveways, or to find other ways around the restrictive ordinance. A loophole could be to build less than 2,500 square feet, finish it, and then start to build another 2,500 square feet.

Under the strict language of the ordinance, that could be done legally.

Another concern to Burnett, he said, was that the restriction would “snuff” any notion of allowing auxiliary dwelling units, also known as “granny flats,” as affordable housing options, on residential lots.

Proponents of the ordinance consider it a strengthening of the Chesapeake Bay impervious coverage regulations aimed at addressing storm water runoff and related issues. The Falls Church Village Preservation and Improvement Society was one among the groups supporting it.

But the board of directors of the Greater Falls Church Chamber of Commerce weighed in this Tuesday with a unanimous vote encouraging a defeat of the measure. Its resolution said that an approach of incentives rather than penalties for steps to control storm water should be followed, citing the negative overall economic consequences of such restrictions.

In comments to the Council Monday, architect Barkley also called it an infringement on property rights and said its passage would require the hiring of additional City staff to operate as “stepping stone police” to make sure everyone was in compliance.

The matter of a new height limit applied to structures on substandard lots was also stalled Monday out of concern for a letter from attorney John H. Foote, representing City resident Anton Schefer suggesting such a move would violate the state code. The code, he said, states that all restrictions in a giving City zone must be uniform and equally applied. By singing out smaller, substandard lots for lower height limits would violate that, he argued.

While City Attorney Thorpe did not have a formal evaluation of the claim prepared Monday, he did note off the cuff that by allowing for “special exceptions” in City zones, as the City has applied them in commercial areas, the state does allow for exceptions, in general.

In other City Council developments Monday:

• It voted to forward to the Planning Commission, pending final action, the proposed purchase of an unimproved home at 215 S. Lee Street for $629,000 that would be used for an entrance to the newly-acquired 4.2-acre Hamlett/Rees Park. It was forwarded to the Planners for a public hearing and deliberation on Nov. 27.

• It gave preliminary approval to reforms in the City code pertaining to purchasing matters, recommended by Chief Financial Officer John Tuohy. The changes are designed to help streamline possible cost-saving consolidation of services with some functions of the Falls Church City Public Schools. It also raises the dollar limit on purchases that require Council approval from $30,000 to $60,000 for professional services and from $50,000 to $100,000 for all other acquisitions. Under this plan, the city manager would report contracts awarded at costs below the new Council approval thresholds.