F.C. Council Bans Residential Split Lot Development, Effective in a Year

Opponents Argue Policy Encroaches On Property Rights

The Falls Church City Council took a decisive action Monday night in an effort to finally put to rest a persisting problem for the City, the practice of residential property owners whose homes straddle two substandard lots to tear down their homes and build two new ones, one on each of the underlying substandard lots.

The City’s zoning administrator has permitted this practice to date, and has been publicly defended by City Manager Wyatt Shields in doing so. But objections have increased from many residential home owners who feel it is introduces too much density into neighborhoods.

The Council agreed with those objections Monday, against the wishes of others who spoke adamantly at Monday’s meeting. By a unanimous vote, it gave final approval to an ordinance modifying the City’s zoning code effectively prohibiting such divisions going forward, while giving all effected property owners a year to make whatever moves they decide upon in light of the new law.

The main issue Monday became how much time to give the impacted property owners. The City Council proposed a year when it gave a preliminary first reading to the measure in June, but when it was referred to the Planning Commission, that body recommended shortening the window from a year to six months.

Strangely, that recommendation got slipped into the language for the City Council’s final approval tonight, and everyone on the Council favored moving the time frame back to a year. They were assured by City resident Joey Randhawa, an design-and-build architect, that six months would simply make it impossible for homeowners to accomplish prompt actions based on the ordinance.

The Council also opposed the Planning Commission’s recommendation for a completed demolition prior to a grading plan approval, instead giving the property owner six months from the time of receiving a demolition permit to follow through.

The terms of the zoning changes will go into effect this August 1, with the grace period for implementation on existing properties will run until August 1, 2014. Monday’s vote was 6-0 with Councilman David Tarter recusing himself because of a potential conflict of interest.

The action did not come without strong protests from homeowners who claimed the action would effectively strip them of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the value of their properties. City resident Dana McArthur said the move “takes away my personal property rights,” suggesting that earlier court decisions upheld that view and that future ones might also.

Councilman Ron Peppe concurred, saying, “It seems like this is taking away a whole bunch of money from a bunch of citizens because some people don’t like big houses.” He added, “The problem seems to be that people want to live in Falls Church. It seems like some people are more interested in winning this fight more than addressing the merits.”

However, City Attorney John Foster assured the Council that their action “does not amount to a (government – ed.) ‘taking’” because, he said, “it does not deny all economic use of the property.”

Vice Mayor David Snyder said that the move “equalizes the playing field” between those whose homes sit on two small lots and those whose homes don’t. The current policy, he said, “is due to an administrative judgment loophole that was never intended.”