2024-07-22 12:47 PM

Guest Commentary: Falls Church Needs to Follow Its Own Zoning Code

It is time for a change at the top.

For seven years, I have fought to get our City government to follow its residential zoning codes as written. I have tried encouragement, compromise, settlement, behind the scenes discussions, and even appeals to the Circuit Court, but to no avail. So entrenched is the City in its policy of defending staff action against the plain language of the law, that it now apparent that incremental corrections are not feasible.

The last time I wrote in the Falls Church News-Press, a Fairfax County resident, who has since moved into the City, was developing two previously combined Lincoln Avenue lots that the City had improperly allowed to be split apart. Today? Residents are fighting the same developer again in the first ever CBIRT (Chesapeake Bay Interdisciplinary Review Team) hearing regarding clear cutting and redevelopment of two additional improperly split substandard lots and zoning appeals are pending as well. City management just plain refuses to follow the law with regards to splitting of substandard lots.

In the interim, absolutely nothing has happened in terms of action by the elected officials or the City management. The City Manager even found himself embroiled in his own controversy when the City Zoning Administrator, who is at the core of all of the problems in zoning and development here, approved an improper front porch projection for the Manager’s own house, circumventing a previous negative decision of the Board of Zoning Appeals.

In fact, the City spends a lot of time circumventing its own code. It’s happening right now in the latest appeals of the Lincoln development. The code requires a stay of actions being appealed yet the City has issued building permits and the builder is pushing forward with construction. Why can’t the City follow even the most basic sentences in its own laws?

In the case of substandard lot splitting, the plain language of the code is clear. Substandard lots are to be reasonably combined. There is no code language that allows decombination once two lots are combined. Yet, the City allows people to circumvent the law by listing previously combined lots under separate ownership using dummy holding corporations. It should be patently obvious to everyone that two substandard lots with a house existing across them are already reasonably combined! Decombination of already combined substandard lots is an illegal subdivision and the City needs to stop allowing it.

There are citizens like myself who spend a lot of time investing themselves in this community as business owners, volunteers, civic activists and even Councilpersons. But when we notice something concerning, we are outright dismissed and even prosecuted by the City government and City Manager.

Former Councilman Dan Maller has brought the substandard lot splitting to the attention of the City government several times. His reward? In a clear case of retribution, the zoning administrator brought a complaint against Maller, with threats of fines and jail time, regarding an alleged building coverage issue which the same zoning administrator had approved six years prior.

City staff have verbally attacked citizens in the hallway simply for coming by and asking a question. Citizens are called stupid. I know this because it has happened to me. Former manager Dan McKeever even sent me a personal apology for the behavior of a staff member.

Then there are residential developers. They build here, sometimes live in one of the houses they build for a few years, but ultimately take profits and move on. The City is left with the density, runoff, increased traffic, and the increased demand for city services. The gross tax receipts may go up, but the net is negative. The City loses money in the deal!

The City Attorney finds himself repeatedly defending City staff actions that are plainly wrong. The City’s responses to improper behavior by its staff members are reactionary and defensive, not proactive and pro-citizen.

I have had enough of the outright dismissal of citizen rights. After seven years, when will the elected officials here stand up for the neighbors and do something to rectify this situation?

At Monday’s Council meeting, the City Manager defended the City by stating that he expected a “consistent fair application of the law.” He is wrong. It is not fair to consistently apply the law incorrectly. If the City Manager disagrees with a portion of the law, he should have the Council change it. Otherwise he needs to follow it.

The City Manager has missed the boat. He forgets who actually pays his salary. The voters do. We are not tenants. We are owners. If the City Manager won’t ensure his staff follows the code, if he won’t even make sure that his own property development is beyond reproach, then he doesn’t deserve the job.





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