Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

To builders, it’s a dream house. To policymakers, a “house out of scale with the neighbors .” To many onlookers, it’s yet another McMansion.

And these looming, barn-like monuments derided as conspicuous consumption have proliferated on too-small lots in Arlington.

In the debate over whether to allow more Missing Middle housing, some blame the county board’s 2005 zoning changes for the current tear-down craze that is shrinking inventory and driving up prices.

But that’s not accurate, say three members of that bygone county board, giving reasons why those 17-year-old changes were designed to do the opposite.

Arlington’s effort to curb McMansions emerged early in the 21st century in a campaign by Ted Weihe, a member of the county Planning Commission, recalled ex-board member Jay Fisette, now a public policy consultant. “History can be completely distorted. We addressed the problem by limiting the most egregious, worst-case scenarios.” There was a four-year process of extensive conversations with citizens, planners and developers.

The final changes sought to limit builder options in four areas: pipestem lots; building heights; setbacks and lot coverage. Sliding-scale maximums on lot coverage and limits on pipestems (houses plopped down behind existing houses via a long driveway) were the most effective, Fisette said. But the challenge since that time has been that “what is a beautiful home to some is to others a monstrosity.” And with by-right property laws, the government “can’t architecturally mandate good taste or sensibility.”

So the changes were softened after builders organized to complain, and many homeowners who might have originally favored a McMansion crackdown suddenly got cold feet when they realized their options for selling their nest-egg home might be limited by the new rules.

Former board member Paul Ferguson (now county clerk) recalls “significant opposition by the development community” to the board’s effort to “incentivize” building on existing lots rather than tearing homes down. That produced compromise on such issues as building heights, for which the means of measurement was made more uniform. “We did our best in 2005 to limit the size of housing while respecting property rights,” Ferguson said. “For some, I can understand we didn’t go far enough, but our actions were never meant to be the last word.”

Board alum Chris Zimmerman, now teaching planning at Georgetown University, said the chief success of the past changes involved granting of use permits. That allowed you “to get a rational arrangement” rather than by “the specifics of by-right zoning codes” for such goals as preserving trees, which owners are entitled to cut down. But today “Americans expect larger houses than they did in the 1940s,” he added. And it’s hard to define “McMansion.” Zoning code changes are “a blunt instrument” because they affect all and produce other consequences.

One of the builders who resisted in 2005 was Terry Showman. He organized the Concerned Arlington County Homeowners to “oppose lot coverage limits being proposed. Initially it was done to limit the size of houses allowing for more open area and hope for tree coverage,” he said. But the “outcry from smaller lot owners, especially in south Arlington,” produced compromises. “These liberal activists who supported this must be rolling over in their graves at the [current] attempts to create multifamily units on every Residential R District lot,” Showman said. “I wish these people who know absolutely nothing about zoning or real estate would stop trying to make drastic changes.”

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