Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: F.C. Zoning: Follow the Law as Written

I can sum up the zoning problems in the City in five words: follow the law as written.

However, I have more to say on the subject.

People might ask why I am focusing on zoning. I care because the City made a promise to me and my neighbors that they have not kept. In 2006, we entered into a settlement allowing a house that was built too close to the road to be sold, while the City promised to follow the code as written from then forward. They did not keep their promise.

The City is not following specifically two important provisions in the zoning code: averaging of front yards (our settlement) and substandard lot re-splitting. The result is a permanent change to the character of our residential neighborhoods, and it is contrary to the law.

“Averaging” of front yards is a requirement of section 48-1102c of the City Code. When a new home is constructed between two existing homes, our code requires the minimum front setback be determined by averaging the front setbacks of the adjoining neighbors.  A review of City records shows that the current zoning administrator, promoted in 2005, stopped requiring averaging after noting “averaging according to the code has created a problem.” His predecessor had always required averaging.

In 2005, I helped lead a group of neighbors in successfully overturning the zoning administrator’s decision where he did not average front yards on Ridge Place. The case resulted in our settlement. The City failed to comply and in 2010 Forest Drive neighbors again successfully overturned the zoning administrator’s decision for not averaging.

Lately, many people in town are talking about the legality of substandard lot development. Substandard lots are ones that do not meet the zoning code’s minimum lot size requirements for development.

Many areas of our city consist of substandard lots combined into larger parcels with houses built across the lot lines. For example, 13 homes on North Oak Street sit on at least 26 substandard lots.

Substandard lot re-splitting involves taking two lots that are combined by an existing home and splitting them apart for separate development. This concept is not allowed by the code as delineated in section 48-1102(b)1 which states that you can develop a single substandard lot only if it “cannot be reasonably combined with other property to meet minimum size requirements.”  Logically, you cannot argue that two lots cannot be combined if they are already combined.

The intent of the code is to create standard sized lots and to implement development and redevelopment in conformance with our adopted Comprehensive Plan. The only reason that there is language on how to develop substandard lots is to preserve the property rights of someone who legitimately owns only one – the exception to the rule. It does not say that they can be split apart.

The City began to allow splitting of substandard lots in the last decade. By advising property owners to place their individual substandard lots under different “ownership” (by transferring one to a corporation or LLC) thereby un-combining them, the City allows development on each lot separately. This action results in tall, narrow, long homes such as you see on Lincoln, West, Pine, Grove and Highland.

By allowing lot re-splitting, the City is undermining its own zoning code and Comp Plan, and drastically changing the density of established neighborhoods.

Last week’s columnist, Art McArthur, is developing two houses on a pair of recently split substandard lots at 1005 Lincoln. One house is nearly complete. McArthur, who lives in Fairfax County and is not a resident or voter in Falls Church City, has said he plans to live in the next home he constructs and retire there. This may be his plan, but McArthur really is a developer looking for a profit by taking advantage of the zoning administrator’s actions rendering as meaningless the code language that requires substandard lots be “reasonably combined.” He has purchased the 1007 Lincoln property, also two currently combined substandard lots, where he could seek to build two more homes. He can’t live in all of these new houses.

McArthur, to his financial advantage, feels that the zoning administrator is correct in advising how to split lots apart. I say that he can’t develop them separately because the code prohibits it – the lots were already previously combined.

There should be one set of rules for everyone to follow. These rules exist in the form of the existing zoning code. Falls Church City government, the citizens expect you to keep your promises and follow the law as written.

Please feel free to email me at [email protected].