Commentary, Guest Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

 Seeking a crystal ball for next steps in the Missing Middle housing debate, I watched the Oct. 17 meeting of credentialed volunteers on the Long Range Planning Committee, part of Arlington’s Planning Commission.

     The tone was civil, and members have clearly heard the protests against the preliminary framework mostly from single-family homeowners. But it was clear from the session led by James Lantelme and James Schroll that the planning staff, though seeking research and four public hearings, expect to execute whatever the county board might finalize.

     I wondered what would be permitted during rewriting of the 1930 zoning ordinance and the 1961 General Land Use Plan.

        The goal of a useful zoning code, the officials said, is for owners and builders to have “clear and objective standards applied uniformly” for most properties under simple administrative approval. That avoids expensive and time-consuming involvement by the county board. There’s also a desire to spell out the public’s opportunity for input on controversial projects (such as eight-plexes). But some warned against “layering on more public approval” for fear of inhibiting construction.

        Several called for architectural reviews that might “allay some community concerns.” Among the criteria could be “compatibility with surrounding neighborhoods.” Because of state laws on lot owners’ rights, the tree canopy is best protected through the coming Forestry and Natural Resources plan, requiring keeping or replanting trees to “enhance beauty and a sense of place.” Most felt no need to cap the number of new housing types that get built, forecasting that the number won’t be inordinate. The staff would, however, track the new types. Final policy on parking minimums will vary by location. And there’s wide interest in reining in “McMansions.”

     Matt Ladd, Arlington’s principal planner, told me that currently there is no design-review—except in historically designated neighborhoods such as Maywood. The precise definition of a neighborhood “is not something done in the zoning ordinance,” he said, noting Arlington’s 60-plus civic associations that might define them differently. Zoning maps done in 1930, 1942, and, most relevant, 1950, cover “every square inch” of Arlington as residential, commercial, mixed use or industrial, all of which call for differing standards. But Ladd doesn’t agree with critics of Missing Middle who say it would “end single family zoning,” noting that single-family homes would still be allowed by right and would form the bulk of new construction.  When debaters refer to the ordinance as a promise to protect single-family homes, they’re referring to 1960s and ‘70s discussions during planning for Metro.

      One zoning attorney who asked not to be identified told me the zoning map is “a patchwork of zones next to each other that kind of happened over time and evolution.” While we must await actual language, a rewrite could specify, say, that R-6 to R-10 zones could allow “only duplexes,” but authorize eight-plexes in others. “Even within a zoning district, there are differing criteria” on, say, setbacks, the attorney added, to assure the building is appropriate for the lot.  The code can “microzone” — that’s what commercial zoning does on a major thoroughfare, “not advancing into a single-family home community.”

     Steven Krieger, a housing attorney, believes the current Missing Middle proposal would not achieve its goals. “Most people are in favor of affordable housing for the middle class, librarians, police, teachers and firefighters who contribute to the great life in Arlington,” he said. “But if you take the more expensive single-family neighborhoods and build a duplex, you get two residences the Missing Middle can’t afford. The plan would increase population, overcrowd schools and dilute the money Arlington pays for services.”

       Could neighbors block the county’s rezoning? “If a community wanted to challenge the new ordinance, it would have to demonstrate that it is unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious or created in bad faith,” Krieger said, citing the 1959 Fairfax case Board of Supervisors v. Carper. “To defeat a community challenge, the county would need only identify some justification for the rezoning.”

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Amid the tangle of campaign signs on N. George Mason Dr. at Washington Blvd., one familiar blue-and-gray panel stood out. “The Name Will Always Be Washington-Lee,” it said, its old logo showing George Washington and Robert E. Lee.

Since the Arlington school board changed the high school name to Washington-Liberty in 2018, I can confirm that some alumni still resist. I asked current school board candidate Dr. James “Vell” Rives if he’d heard of any movement to revert to the old name. No, he said.

My friends in the W-L class of ’71, who invited me for a history talk at their 50th-year reunion Oct. 9, printed a program bearing the name Washington-Lee.