Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Don’t Sacrifice our Neighborhoods on the Altar of ‘Property Rights’

All around us we can see myriad indications of how fortunate we are to live in a community that wears its values on both sleeves and finds “balance” in the consistent, single minded pursuit of excellence. Our world-class, independent public schools are the envy of nearly everybody, and likewise our real estate has remained in strong demand through a recession that has caused most local governments to choose the value of doing less (and perhaps their citizens demand this Faustian compromise).

Private capital is awakening from its recessionary slumber and renewing our long-awaited commercial revitalization, as pointed out in last week’s editorial. Our business community and the Greater Falls Church Chamber of Commerce have been remarkably steadfast in their support of the City and its schools, and we are fortunate to have a vigorous local retail and service sector, upon which we need to build to broaden our tax base and reduce the burden on residential taxpayers. We face challenges given the limited tools available to local governments in Virginia and our physical constraints, but I applaud the efforts and the leadership of our current council and the words of David Snyder this past week. Our Citizens, our City Council and Planning Commission and City Staff are all pulling in the same direction and we are seeing the results of the hard work to bring commercial development.

Against this background, it is doubly disappointing that in at least one area, residential zoning administration, the actions of our government have fallen so far short of our expectations. While the demand for independent schools was the organizing force behind our incorporation as a City, and remains the reason for our existence and success, without our desirable residential neighborhoods it is unlikely this fundamental organizing force would ever have developed.

Without delving into the history in detail, economic pressures to build larger homes and to maximize the building envelope on a lot changed the dynamics of land use in the 21st century. Many citizens have challenged decisions made by City officials in the administration of the zoning code. Greatly complicating this situation has been a pattern of obfuscation by the current Zoning Administrator, consistently seeking to avoid issuing any written decision, attempting the limit the jurisdiction of the BZA, and bending the rules wherever possible to support a radical property rights approach where virtually anything goes.

Economic pressures to build larger homes and to maximize the building envelope on a lot changed the dynamics of land use in the 21st century.

I have challenged a number of these decisions through appropriate legal channels. These efforts have resulted in a Virginia Supreme Court decision sustaining the City’s right to regulate development of substandard lots more strictly than conforming lots, the stopping of a development approved by the ZA, and an unsuccessful effort to stop another. Most recently, I brought an appeal to the BZA, the first of its kind, which voted 2-1 to overturn the ZA’s approval, but short of the 3 votes required to overturn, and the Arlington Circuit Court has refused to intercede, so I am considering an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court.

The City has implemented a number of reforms, including a change to the BZA rules implemented after the Zoning Administrator wrongfully rejected an appeal. Another reform, prompted by the Kafkaesque position of the ZA that his decisions were not appealable because his review occurred more than 30 days prior to the issuance of a permit, was an administrative rule that all approvals would date from the date of the last internal approval. In spite of (or perhaps because of) this progress, earlier this year the ZA prosecuted me for asserted violations. While the BZA dismissed this effort, which I consider to be a gross abuse of his position and City resources, it is emblematic of the problems we face in “administration” and the efforts that are necessary to achieve even a modicum of balancing the expectations of neighbors against property “rights.”

As we last did in the 1950s, the City is engaged in a process of reviewing and reforming its zoning. This process is fraught with peril for the future of the City of Falls Church. The economics of maintaining a small City mandate great care in the regulation of land use, care which is not evident in the past decade. The ZOAC recommendations were the result of a lengthy review, which on the residential side were clouded by the unfortunate history of City actions directly contrary to the directions of the zoning ordinance, to the adopted land use (Comprehensive) plan and to the plain language of the code. Aided by our new Planning Director, who has a lengthy and successful record both of achieving results and of managing a process to meet Citizens’ expectations for transparency, this process is well underway. I urge all citizens to insist that the final product reflects our community values and protects our neighborhoods through proper enforcement.