Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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The great Arlington fracas over pipestem lots was settled calmly this month. It was a rare Kumbaya moment in which county officials, a developer and neighboring homeowners each gave an inch.

The passions arose last fall over plans by the builder of a nearly complete new home at 2615 N. Nottingham St., to take advantage of backyard open space and erect an additional grand-scale house accessible by the type of elongated driveway that gives pipestems (some 20 of which exist in Arlington) their name.

Neighbors throughout the affected civic association zone rose up on listserves and in testimony at hearings. They complained that the size of the crammed-in house would block views, destroy trees, increase traffic and endanger storm drainage. They argued that granting a use permit would set a precedent for reduced setbacks that would add to what is already a problem, in my humble opinion: Arlington’s vanishing side yards.

But Andrew Moore of Arlington Designer Homes wanted another of his signature 21st-century green homes. He gets to take advantage of 1969 zoning on Nottingham Street that was grandfathered in when Arlington banned new pipestem development in 2003.

Both sides hired attorneys.

Arlington has a history of grass-roots activism on the pipestem issue. Back in the late 1990s, my friends Mike and Mary Lou Higgs assembled blockmates on North 23rd Street and filed suit to prevent builders Michael and Delores Kirkbride from adding a home with an infill pipestem in the neighborhood “meadow.” It went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court, which backed the Arlington Board of Zoning Appeals’ denial of a permit. (That meadow today is protected by an addition to the existing home where the pipestem driveway would have been.)

In 2005, the county imposed restrictions on lot coverage for new homes, to preserve some green space between structures. But that hasn’t arrested the movement toward taller, fatter suburban castles. The “monster house” on North Sycamore and 27th Street still towers over its neighbors’ bungalows, and anger at oversized dwellings is the cover story of the new issue of Arlington magazine.

But in the Nottingham Street case, the county board, after endless hours of emotional presentations, facilitated a summit and encouraged the parties to compromise. On Feb. 11, it was announced opponents had done so.

The result: a shorter and narrower home, fewer windows, new trees, a fence and improved drainage, a green roof and a separate garage. “It’s a different architectural style than we had, but it’s going to be a great home for someone,” the builder told reporters.

“We are pleased that an agreement has been reached,” Karla Brown, president, Leeway Overlee Civic Association, told me. “Although the process of coming to a compromise was at times very difficult and contentious, the end product appears to be one that everyone can live with.”

Board members expressed relief and said the process worked as intended.

Yet future such disputes are likely. My friend Terry Showman, a homebuilder, has long opposed the county’s policy of requiring a use permit for what he believes should be an owner’s building privileges by right. He says there are many more pipestem lots and that opening too many such decisions up to citizens input wastes staff time and costs everybody money.
Such private decisions have sizable public impact. No Arlington home is an island.

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]