Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Don’t Restrict Property Rights in Falls Church

Why did we create SaveOurLittleCity.com. The answer is simple. We did it because for nearly a year we have been attacked, bullied and financially harmed by one individual for building a wonderful new home. We have been accused of “destroying the soul of the neighborhood” and “circumventing the zoning code”. In response we became educated and are now fighting back.

Coincidentally, new zoning recommendations provided by the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee (ZOAC) are being submitted to City Council. We were appalled at what we read– 6 out of 9 recommendations would restrict, reduce or eliminate vested rights for existing property owners. Nearly 20% of the report is devoted to a single issue– development of substandard residential lots. It is our view the report is biased in favor of larger lots in order to permit “McMansions.”

My wife and I aren’t politicians or business owners, just two people who are trying to build a house. We started a grassroots effort to educate residents about how the new zoning recommendations will strip them of their vested property rights. We collected over 70 petitions and provided them to city council. Pretty fair results for two citizens. However, we fear these are such arcane issues with such far-reaching impacts that residents who don’t speak up now won’t see the rights they’ve lost until they are told they can’t add a porch or front yard averaging prevents a room addition.

Does the report have a hidden agenda because one of its members has sued multiple property owners to prevent new home construction? Is there a conflict of interest with the chair of the Zoning Board who wrote the final report? Why didn’t the report include any recommendations provided by city staff?

What constitutes a ‘destruction’ of neighborhood character is a matter of taste and opinion, and not an objectively verifiable fact.

The report goes to great lengths to justify a position that “brazen tactic[s]” are being used to develop substandard lots and is “inconsistent with the plain language of the code.” We ask, “according to whom?” The report is silent on the fact that every effort to convince a court to overturn the Zoning Administrator’s interpretation has failed. Thus, any permit issued consistently with the City’s practice is a valid, and not an invalid, exercise of local authority.

The proposition that continuing current practice will somehow result in the destruction of the City’s character is a political position, but not one borne out by history. Obviously, what constitutes a “destruction” of neighborhood character is a matter of taste and opinion, and not an objectively verifiable fact.

Let’s address the argument that property owners are making profit at the City’s expense. There are a few that proselytize this point of view without facts. It is, to put it directly, a scare tactic. It is a commonly accepted, but false, proposition that residential development never pays for itself. If that were true every Virginia locality that does not have an adequate commercial tax base would be bankrupt, and none are. Fauquier County, for example, grew by more than 12% over the past ten years, very little of it commercial or industrial. It has the same tax rate today as it did ten years ago, with no appreciable reduction in services.

At the end of the day what resonates with all property owners when it comes time to retire, move or sell is this: “how much is my property worth”?

That is a very difficult question and one in which I will try to make sense of using a very simple formula. Bottom line: “Your property is worth what someone will pay for it.” A person buys a property because they have a vision of what it might look like someday. They buy it because the zoning regulations allow improvements and redevelopment to occur. If on the other hand zoning requirements are suffocating, fewer buyers will be interested, and your property is not going to be worth nearly as much.

There is a good percentage of housing stock in the City that could be turned over and improved over the next 20 years if our zoning allows it. Take a look at adjoining neighborhoods that cross into Fairfax and Arlington to see the improvements made over the past 10 years.

The City of Falls Church has a reputation of being “builder unfriendly;” so many builders no longer do business in the city. The permits office issues an average of 25 new building permits a year. Twenty are for replacement homes and five for new home development. With a total of 2,400 single family homes in the city that equates to a development rate of less than 1%. The city should be ashamed of that number. Over time this will lead to neighborhood blight. It already started, just look around.

We commissioned an analysis of the ZOAC report from one of Virginia’s most respected land use legal firms to help us and all property owners better understand its impacts. We invite you to read the report on our website (www.saveourlittlecity.com) and draw your own.