In a continuation of a meeting that saw nearly three hours of debate on the issue last Monday, the City of Falls Church Planning Commission ruled to uphold citizen appeals against the approval of residential development on the 1000 block of Lincoln Avenue by the Chesapeake Bay Interdisciplinary Review Team (CBIRT) tonight, just hours before the Tuesday deadline for the decision. The judgment brought to an end the Commission’s first foray into the appeals process for CBIRT reviews, but raised questions for commissioners, local residents, and even City Attorney John Foster on what the ramifications of this decision would be.
The development at 1007 Lincoln Ave., plans for two homes for a lot that previous held one, have been questioned by area residents who fear the construction will negatively impact water quality (resulting in higher water pollution) and quantity (resulting in greater risk and severity of flooding in the area), because of the greater amount of permeable, water-absorbing green space the construction will conceal. Two appeals, one by residents of the adjacent Steeples Court properties and one by John Murphy of a nearby property on Chestnut Street, requested that the CBIRT review of the property be overturned on the basis that the review, tasked with ensuring that proposed construction not negatively impact water quality in local streams and rivers that feed into the Chesapeake Bay, was incorrect in its findings and that the development would be detrimental to the already flood-prone area.
City Civil Engineer Jason Widstrom, a member of the CBIRT, supported the group’s approval of the proposed development as in line with the City Code for the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area Overlay District. The proposed development would include 41.4 percent impervious coverage, meaning that amount of the property would be covered by surfaces like garages, driveways, and the two homes themselves. Widstrom said that City Code states that properties with up to 35 percent impervious coverage do not need to include additional measures to mitigate the water impact, and that this property’s plan includes the use of cisterns to reduce its impact to be measurably similar to that of a property with 35 percent impervious coverage. He added that other area municipalities allow for such mitigation for properties that exceed the allowed impervious coverage.
It’s a reading of City Code to which Commissioner Lindy Hockenberry voiced objection. Hockenberry said, as a sitting member of City Council when the code was adopted, that the intent of the Council was for no properties to exceed 35 percent impervious coverage. She added that Council’s intent then was that 25 percent of the property be the maximum allocated for “under roof” space with the additional 10 percent to account for features like a patio or shed that might be included later. Commission Vice Chair John Lawrence echoed her statements, adding that upon his review of Council minutes that 35 percent was to be seen as the maximum.
“It’s a hard cap,” Lawrence said.
Widstrom would be the sole voice of support for the CBIRT decision before the Commission at tonight’s meeting. Representatives for Little City Builders, the developers of the property, declined additional comment before the Commission (though Art McArthur, co-owner of Little City Builders, made remarks at last Monday’s meeting in support of the plan for the two houses).
After hearing briefly from appellants and the public, and debate amongst commissioners about which parts of the development plan were in violation of City Code — nearly all were in agreement that 35 percent was a maximum not to be exceeded — a motion to uphold the appeals was put to vote and supported by all present commissioners (Robert Loftur-Thun was absent) except Russell Wodiska, who agreed with the CBIRT reading of the letter of the City Code and said the developer shouldn’t be “penalized for being in an area that is already problematic.”
Foster outlined “two avenues” that the developer may take: either submitting a new plan for the properties, or taking the Commission’s ruling to court. A revised plan from the developer was mentioned in a memo from Widstrom, which said McArthur is willing to submit that new plan — which includes 34.9 percent impervious coverage, along with other enhancements to water impact mitigation — “with the understanding that it is a revised plan and would not be subject to a second CBIRT review and/or appeals process.” In the Commission’s final decision, they made clear that any future plans would need to go through the CBIRT review anew.
Before putting the final motion to vote, though, the Commission called upon Foster to ask questions about the bearing of their decision. The Commission raised questions regarding voiding permits issued upon approval by the CBIRT, as that decision has been overturned. Foster said the Commission does not have the authority to void permits, and that enforcement would need to be sought by the appellants. Upon further question, Foster reminded the Commissioners that this appeal process was “new ground” for all involved, and said he was “not comfortable answering these questions with finality.”
“It’s stunning,” said Peggy Reel, a resident of Steeples Court representing the appellant before the Commission, of the ruling. She added that she, too, is uncertain in the face of the City staff and Commission’s uncertainty regarding what will come of the development on 1007 Lincoln Ave.