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Here is this week’s letter:
Falls Church Resident Offers Proposed Changes to ZOAC Final Report
By Art McArthur
On February 5th the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee (ZOAC) turned in its final report on the zoning ordinance to City Council. The ZOAC reached a firm consensus on both broad and more specific recommendations on changes to the zoning ordinance that the City Council should undertake. At this time I only wish to address the impacts of the ZOAC recommendations as it concerns the residential recommendations. The ZOAC provided nine residential recommendations and of those nine recommendations, six have major implications to property owners in the city of Falls Church. The City Council is going to address the ZOAC report along with substandard lots at the March 7th working session. I am encouraging all property owners to be active and provide input to Council on these recommendations.
PROPOSED CHANGE #1: Change townhouse requirements to eliminate the three acre minimum for townhouses and allow runs of three or four. This could be allowed by special use in the R districts.
- The typical townhouse is twenty feet wide with zero side setbacks, whereas the typical house in the R-1B is 40 feet wide with 10-foot side setbacks on a 60-foot wide lot, and in the R-1A the typical house is 45-feet wide with 15-foot side setbacks on a 75-foot wide lot. By eliminating the 3 acre minimum, this proposal would allow as many as 3 townhouses to be squeezed into the same space that previously could have held only one single family house.
- This is a severe expansion of residential infill, loss of open space between residences, an increase in on-street parking congestion and a greater influx of school-age children, which we have been told by Council; creates a severe strain on the school budget.
PROPOSED CHANGE #2: Prohibit single family houses in the combined T district, (see commercial recommendations for the combined T district) but allow townhouses and live/work units.
- The current single-family use permitted in the T zoning district that this change proposes to eliminate is the same that is allowed in the R-1B—houses typically 40-feet wide with side setbacks of 10 feet on lots 60-feet wide. By replacing these single family houses with townhouses, which are typically 20-feet wide and have zero side setbacks, plus allowing live/work units, the proposed code creates a severe expansion of residential infill, loss of open space between residences, an increase in on-street parking congestion and a greater influx of school-age children, which we have been told by Council creates a severe strain on the school budget.
- The purpose of a “transitional” zoning district is to establish a gentle transition between the heavy commercial districts and single-family residential neighborhoods.
- Rather than a gentle transition, this proposal would create hyper residential congestion between the commercial and single-family residential neighborhoods.
- This change would also render all existing houses in the T zoning districts “nonconforming”, which means they cannot be expanded or torn down and rebuilt.
- Will owners of existing houses in the T zoning districts be compensated with lower assessments when their formerly by right homes are deemed nonconforming by the proposed change?
PROPOSED CHANGE #2: Modify the current height restrictions for substandard lots by area to include substandard lots by width or area.
- The code was recently changed to reduce the height of houses on lots that do not meet the minimum square footage required by code. In the R-1A zone the minimum lot size is 11,250 square feet, and in the R-1B the minimum lot size is 7,250 square feet. For lots not meeting these minimum area dimensions, the building height is reduced by an amount equal to the percentage of shortfall.
- For example, if a lot is 10% smaller in area than what the code requires, the house height is reduced by 10%, but to not less than 25 feet. This provision is part of the existing code and has impacted hundreds of existing homes as well as new construction.
- The proposed new requirement would extend that methodology to include lots that do not meet the minimum required width. In the R-1A zone the minimum lot width is 75 feet, and in the R-1B it is 60 feet. Any existing residential lot not meeting its minimum width requirements would immediately have its maximum building height reduced.
- A quick glance at properties in Falls Church indicates that many existing properties would be severely impacted. For example, there are many 50-foot wide lots currently in the R-1B zone. This proposed change would lower the height of these houses from the current 35 feet to only 29 feet. (50 ÷ 60 = 0.83 x 35 = 29.1) There are also many lots in the R-1A that are 60 feet in width, whereas 75 feet is required. This change would lower the height of these houses from the current 35 feet to only 28 feet. (60 ÷ 75 = 0.8 x 35 = 28)
- The most severe impact of this proposed change, however, is not to the height of the house, but in the number of “nonconforming” houses it would create. The existing code says that any house that does not meet code for setbacks or height cannot be expanded. That means an untold number of houses that currently satisfy all requirements for setbacks and height would be deemed nonconforming structures unless their heights happened to comply with this proposed change. The owners of any house not complying with this proposed change could not add a new porch, put a roof over an exposed stoop or add a room without first applying to the Board of Zoning Appeals for a variance.
- Given the severe limitations placed on nonconforming structures, what are the odds that a variance would be approved for a home owner? The terms 'slim' and 'none' come to mind.
- Will property owners be seeing a reduction in assessments to match the reduction in what they would be allowed to build if this change is adopted?
PROPOSED CHANGE #4: Eliminate the setback bonuses for houses built on substandard lots.
- When the Town and later the City of Falls Church was created and a zoning code was drafted, the leadership at that time realized that much of the area had already been subdivided, some even back into the 1800's. They realized that by adopting a zoning code that established lot sizes and setbacks, many existing properties would not conform. To accommodate these existing lots, language was included in the code that allowed setbacks to be reduced, thereby allowing otherwise unbuildable properties to construct houses.
- This process has been present in the zoning code of Falls Church since its foundation. The proposed change would eliminate setback reductions for properties that do not meet the minimum dimension requirements of the code. Properties that have served the City well for over 60 years would now be considered nonconforming.
- For example, the code currently requires lots in the R-1B to be 60-feet wide, with side setbacks of 10 feet. However, an existing 40-foot wide lot is currently allowed reduced side setbacks to 20% of the lot width. 20% of 40 = 8. Therefore, this 40-foot wide lot is currently allowed side setbacks of 8 feet, which results in a house width of 24 feet. The proposed change would eliminate the reduction, impose the standard side setbacks of 10 feet, and reduce the house width to only 20 feet. That's a width that is commonly referred to as a “shotgun house”.
- Following the same existing and proposed code impact on a typical 60-foot wide property in the R-1A zone results in a current house width of 36 feet being restricted to only 30 feet wide. 20% x 60 = 12, which = 24 feet of side setbacks. On a 60-foot wide lot, that = a house width of 36 feet. If changed to side setbacks of 15 feet, that = 30 feet of side setbacks, leaving only 30 feet of house width on a 60-foot wide lot.
- If this change is adopted, every house that was built to the code that has been in place for over 60 years, and every house that cannot meet the new setbacks, would be deemed a nonconforming structure.
PROPOSED CHANGE #5: Add an “intent statement” to the code, indicating that lots that were jointly developed after February 14, 1944 were under joint ownership and reasonably combined at that time and do not have individual development rights. An example of an intent statement is, “It is the intent of this section that individual substandard lots of record jointly developed at any time after February 14, 1944 to meet the requirements of the zoning code may not separately be used for a one-family dwelling because they were under common ownership when combined at the time of the joint development.”
- Again, when the Town and City were created and the leadership sought to adopt a zoning code, they recognized that there were many existing lots that would not meet minimum dimensions. Some of these properties were purchased in pairs or even in a set of three, and the owners chose to build a house on them. Vast numbers of these original underlying lots remain to this day. There are entire neighborhoods that have been built out this way.
- The existing code respects those underlying lots and respects an owner's right to choose to sell off these lots for new construction, combine their lots into a larger one, or do nothing and leave them the way they are.
- As property values—and taxes—increased over the years, many property owners chose to sell their lots for new construction. This is provided for in the existing code, and was recently affirmed by the Supreme Court of Virginia.
- The proposed change would arbitrarily deem any substandard lot that now or has ever had a house on it to have been combined with any adjacent lots the owner possesses or possessed at the time of construction.
- The proposed change would make this combination retroactive to the time that a house was built on the lots. It wouldn't even matter if you tore the house down, or if a house had been built on the lots 50 years ago. Once a house had been built, the lots would be deemed combined.
- The proposed change and statement of intent means that any house that was built contrary to this intent, even if it was built back to 1944, would now be deemed to be nonconforming. Refer to the above code excerpts regarding what a nonconforming house means.
- Whereas the current code allows the property owner to choose whether or not to combine his or her lots and whereas the current code provides for lot consolidation to be a formal process and application to the Planning Commission initiated by the property owner, the proposed change would remove these choices from the owner and would forcibly and administratively deem all substandard lots to be combined with lots in common ownership. Anyone who now owns a home that happens to have two substandard lots under it would have those lots administratively combined whether they like it or not.
- With the City being composed of upwards of 1,000 such lots, and with market values of many lots being in excess of $250,000 and up, this proposed change would have a devastating—and uncompensated--financial impact on our property owners.
PROPOSED CHANGE #6: Increase protection of historic structures by enabling mandatory HARB (Historic Architectural Advisory Board) approval for exterior renovations that impact the historic character of the structure. Virginia code appears to allow mandatory HARB approval prior to issuing a building permit for any renovations.
- Owners of historic homes (constructed prior to 1910) would have to get HARB permission to renovate the exterior of their homes.
- Present code makes the HARB an advisory board; the proposed change would make the HARB's decisions mandatory for owners of historic homes.
The City Council needs to hear from property owners on these recommendations.