Council to Extend Deadline a Year for ‘Substandard’ Policy

While giving unanimous preliminary approval to an ordinance designed to ensure that the City of Falls Church’s 220 contiguous “substandard” residential lots “be considered combined” for purposes of zoning rulings, the F.C. City Council Monday night extended for over a year the date when such a policy would become legally binding.

The ordinance as first drafted and discussed at a Council work session month would have become binding on Aug. 1, 2013, but when it was pointed out during the hearing at Monday’s meeting that such a minimal amount of time could lead to a panic among impacted property owners, the Council was willing to follow the advice from members of the public who spoke at the hearing to extend the date of formal implementation to Aug. 1, 2014.

The matter will come for a hearing before the Planning Commission on July 1, and for a final vote by the F.C. City Council on July 22. The vote was 5-0 with Vice Mayor David Snyder absent and Councilman David Tarter, who represents some developers with a potential interests in the matter, recusing himself.

The issue has been a thorny one for years in Falls Church, but most especially since the real estate boom in the first years of the new century saw property values in Falls Church skyrocket. As developers saw the potential for dividing lots that had been combined, the process was set in motion to the chagrin of existing homeowners who saw the process negatively impacting their neighborhoods.

The F.C. Council was compelled to take up the issue in 2006, but it went nowhere when confronted by threatened lawsuits in defense of basic property rights. When the City continued to administratively grant requests to divide existing lots into their “substandard” components, a spate of citizen lawsuits failed to stem the policy. City Manager Wyatt Shields upheld the validity of such administrative decisions based on existing city and state law.

Now, the matter has come back in a new form, designed not to directly challenge the validity of underlying property lot lines, but to change the criteria for zoning rulings concerning homes built on two combined “substandard” lots. City Attorney John Foster has assured the Council that a measure of this kind is legal and would not infringe upon citizen property rights.

Monday’s hearing included comments from builder Steve Resnick who expressed concern for the “negative impact on the value of the lots involved.”

Falls Church homeowner Arthur McArthur, who battled the earlier proposed legislation, said that after the lawsuits that already decided in favor of the current policy, this new effort could create the impression of “trying to slip one in.”

“It has been decided, why change it now?” he asked.

But citizens Richard Maynard, Dan Maller and Gordon Theisz spoke in favor of passing the new ordinance. Maynard said the policy goes to “what the nature of the City is going to be,” to the “quality of neighborhoods”, the “character of neighborhoods” and the “pleasant” environment of the City.

Charles Plowmeier said new homes being built on divided “substandard” lots are “way too big,” and “ugly.” Rosemary Donaldson said “we’re losing it” in the battle to be “a pleasant place to be.”

But Kevin Strickler cautioned the Council about “taking away property rights,” and that the current policy is in keeping with “smart growth” principles of developing existing infill opportunities nearer existing infrastructure and transportation hubs.