Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Council Should Act To Protect Residential Neighborhoods

On Monday, City Council will consider for final approval a clarification to the zoning ordinance prohibiting substandard lot splitting and redevelopment (TO 16-13). Approving the ordinance is the right thing to do and it is about time.

The intent of Chapter 48 of the City Code states that its purpose is to preserve and protect the existing residential areas of the City of Falls Church.

In the early 2000s, the City Zoning Administrator asked the City Attorney to look into a newly discovered loophole in the zoning code. Our zoning law was adopted in the 1950s from previous codes, as the City established itself as an independent entity from Fairfax County.

The loophole originates from one sentence of the original code (48-1102b1b) which states: “any lot … which does not meet the lot size requirements … may be used for a one-family dwelling, provided it cannot be reasonably combined with other property to meet the minimum size requirements.”

This code language clearly sets the goal to have residential development occur on standard-sized lots.

In some neighborhoods, before the adoption, individuals had purchased two or three small narrow lots to build their home. The most common configuration was two lots with one home straddling them. Some purchased a third lot and used it as a larger side yard. The code writers in in the ’50s recognized that there were orphaned third lots and did not want to take away the right for property owners to develop them. This is a great example of where a substandard lot could not “be reasonably combined.”

With the loophole, the zoning administrator realized that creative property owners could make individual substandard lots no longer reasonably combined by listing them under separate ownership in land records, tearing down the old house, and developing two in its place

In the early 2000s, this occurred only twice, on Highland Avenue. Since 2005, a boom of the so-called substandard lot splitting has continued unabated to this day. One can see these homes (easily identifiable by their narrow, tall, detached townhome appearance) on Grove, West, Lincoln, Highland, Pine, and Van Buren Streets.

Substandard lot splitting has resulted in increased demand on public services. When one small house is replaced by two larger houses, as in substandard lot splitting, the potential for rapid growth of school population exists. Furthermore, there are impacts on traffic, loss of trees, increased runoff, increased pollution, increased demand on police, fire, sewage, water services, and neighborhood crowding.

When a substandard lot is developed, it benefits from reduced side and rear yard sizes (known as setbacks). Imagine living next door to a modest home on two substandard lots for decades and finding out that the City approved two new homes to tower over your yard, closer to your house than the old one.

The City identified about 230 combined substandard lots. The financial impact of development of these is staggering. If every one of these properties were redeveloped, the city would benefit from about $3M in new revenue, but spend $9M on education costs alone for an average family. That is a $6M loss that the rest of us cover with increased taxes.

Further complicating the tax situation is that the City has always taxed combined substandard lots as one property with potential for one development. Not until split apart does the City benefit from the increased tax value of two developable lots.

Owners do not typically benefit from the sale of the two lots because the combined lots sell based on the presence of only one home. Only when they are redeveloped and split apart with construction of a pair of near-million dollar homes is the profit potential realized, and that profit goes to the developer alone.

City Council has attempted to address the substandard lot issue several times in the past. Two citizen committees have studied it and recommended elimination of the loophole, but no legislation has ever been brought to a vote. The Planning Commission voted unanimously this week recommending passage of the new ordinance.

On Monday, July 22, City Council will hopefully close the loophole. If passed, owners of two combined substandard lots will have until a specific date in 2014 to decide whether to split their lots into two developments following current zoning interpretations.

I want thank City Council for having the courage to finally tackle the substandard lot problem, and I and many citizens encourage them to see this through. The clarification will preserve and protect residential neighborhoods, bring City interpretation more in line with the goals of the comprehensive plan, and reduce the tax impact of excess single family home development. It is the right thing to do.


Gordon Theisz is a resident of the City of Falls Church. He does not own any substandard lots.