City Rejects Initial Woodland House Subdivision Plan

BY GINGER PINHOLSTER
and STEPHEN SIEGEL
Falls Church Times Staff

January 8, 2011

Falls Church City officials have rejected a developer’s proposal to subdivide the one-acre site of the storied Woodland House at Fulton Avenue and North Lee Street, but the fate of the property and of a giant tulip poplar tree remain uncertain.

The property, which was purchased at an auction by ASR Designer Homes, includes a much-loved former school house that 70 residents petitioned to save last year. The petition asked the city to prevent any subdivision.

The initial proposal by ASR included plans to save and restore the home, but it also would have added four new houses to the site, including one “pipestem” lot that would sit behind a house fronting the street.

The proposal was rejected because setbacks did not meet the zoning requirements, said property owner Deep Randhawa of Randhawa Architects & Builders, which is affiliated with ASR. As of Friday, a city zoning map showed the property to be designated as R1-B, which mandates 25-foot front, 10-foot side, and 30-foot rear setbacks from the property lines.

“We did apply for the subdivision of that property,” Randhawa said. “What we submitted was incorrect, as per the standards for setbacks in the city. They revised the setbacks of that particular zoning which applied to us.”

A city-owned “paper street,” which is largely undeveloped but identified on maps, has further complicated matters, Randhawa said. Although the paper street, known as Cedar Street, was littered and overgrown, he said the city told him he would need to maintain “a rather large setback” from it.

Randhawa said Friday he still intends to restore the historic home, and he will submit a revised subdivision plan to the city soon.

But the tree may or may not be saved. “Our situation is very clear and very simple,” Randhawa said. “If it is on one of the lots where a house goes, the tree has to go. If it is away from the house and doesn’t affect the building, we have no interest in getting it down.”

Beginning last week, area neighbors have witnessed a dramatic cleanup of the Woodland House site, which includes two adjoining properties on North Lee Street and on Pennsylvania Avenue. In addition to removing brush and undergrowth, Randhawa’s crew removed multiple refuse carts.

At one point, Randhawa said, a man from the neighborhood accosted the cleanup crew. “He was yelling and screaming to our workers … These guys are out there in winter … trying to clean up that mess in bad weather, and we were paying for it, and they were upset.”

But he added that another neighbor stopped by to applaud his plans for restoring the house.

The Woodland House dates to the 1890s, and had been in the Shefer family since the 1960s. It may have been built by the grandfather of Jickie Styles Crocker, whose mother lived there until the Great Depression. Crocker reported to the Village Preservation and Improvement Society last March that the home had served as a school at one point. The most recent owner, Anton Shefer, died in February 2010, and the house and lot were sold for $2,150,000. It is said to include six bedrooms and three bathrooms, encompassing a total of ten rooms and 4,393 square feet.

The Falls Church Tree Commission passed a motion October 27 urging the City Council “to investigate all options” for saving the huge poplar. Taking up nearly a quarter of the more than one-acre lot, the tree measures 70- to 74 inches in diameter and may be up to 150 years old.

By
January 8, 2011 

Comments

10 Responses to “City Rejects Initial Woodland House Subdivision Plan”

  1. (Name not provided) on January 8th, 2011 10:31 am

    Another typical situation with the City and residents acting in their own self interests.

    Cedar Street has never been maintained by the City, and adjacent property owners are basically squatters with fences and sheds back there. It is only a city street when it suits the City to be anti-development. It is also surprising that . . . [ED: Sorry, can’t criticize an individual without providing your own real name].

    As for the neighbors, it is private property and the owners can do whatever they want to it within the limits of the City Code. If they are so worried about the trees and the house, then they should have pooled together and tried to purchase the property.

  2. Gordon Theisz, City of Falls Church on January 8th, 2011 10:36 am

    As with all things zoning, the devil is in the details. Mr. Randhawa says the City “revised the setbacks” for them and requires “a rather large setback” from the paper street. Perhaps the authors could let us know what the setbacks were that Mr. Randhawa requested and what the City is requiring?

    On the tree issue, it is a major “duh” when he says “If it is on one of the lots where a house goes, the tree has to go.” It is the property owner’s right to do this – I don’t dispute that, but as a developer, he is interested in profit, not preservation. I wonder if the City has had an opportunity to assess the health of the tree?

    I feel bad for the workers who were yelled at, but Mr. Randhawa would do well to recognize that neighbors have a lot of emotions about the subdivision of this historic property. Perhaps a little neighborhood outreach and public explanation of his plans are in order.

    I remember the developers across the street from us sitting on my lawn laughing at me when I asked why 15 mature trees had to be taken down. Silly neighbor! – these trees had to be removed, even on the periphery of the property, so that they could drive around their equipment. Again, profit and expedience over preservation.

  3. Ginger Pinholster on January 8th, 2011 11:21 am

    Thank you for reading. Dr. Theisz, regarding your question about the proposed vs. required setback sizes, I’m sorry, I don’t know. I had queried three city officials but they had not yet replied by press time. If we can get more information, we’ll be happy to share it soonest. Stay warm, all.

  4. name not given on January 9th, 2011 10:51 pm

    I’m in the neighborhood and concerned enough that I went down to City Hall myself last week to inquire about this. I find it a shame that someone yelled at the workers. I think we should be reaching out to the builder rather than engaging him in needless conflict. He bought the property and has a right to develop it as much as we might wish it weren’t so. I also think he has an interest in working with the neighbors amicably where he can. No one wants a struggle. I met Joey Randhawa briefly a couple of years ago, and he struck me as a nice, reasonable person. My hope is that he builds homes that are in keeping with the style of the neighborhood, which currently has surprisingly few new homes. Those that have been built have been are mostly in a neo-traditional (e.g., Craftsman) style that fits in beautifully with the many older homes. I hope that he will consider continuing that trend.

    Regarding the tree, there is an area around it that will obviously need to be protected to preserve the roots. Meanwhile, we know the builder has gone back to the drawing board to work on a new subdivision plan. Perhaps the City arborist could determine the boundary of the root protection zone now so the builder can at least consider this as he works out the subdivision of the lot. As I understand it, this is normally done at a later stage, but this is something that needs to be known now if it is to be considered.

  5. fcmama on January 10th, 2011 6:34 am

    Finally, some effort to clean up what frankly has been for years an eyesore.

  6. Dan Maller, City of Falls Church on January 11th, 2011 2:02 pm

    The shame here is that the “reasonably be combined” clause regarding substandard lots was intended to help with situations like this, but it has been so perverted by staff “interpretation” that the tree probably will have to be destroyed. Wouldn’t it be fine if the number of houses allowed in the zoning district was allowed on aggregate and the tree could survive? It depends on the precise configuration of the lot lines, but I venture to say most of us would support the builder being able to build whatever the number of houses they could build based on the code, and not having to kill the tree.

  7. name not given on January 11th, 2011 11:09 pm

    I’m the neighbor who posted on the 9th. I was told that he will be able to subdivide to create three new R1-A lots on the land where the mansion is (he had tried for four) plus a lot for the mansion. I completely agree with Mr. Maller that allowing him some sort of variance on the lot dimensions, setbacks, etc. that would allow for the three houses while sparing the tree only makes sense. It could be a win-win for the community and the builder (and the tree!). But could such an idea realistically be implemented? It’s the builder’s decision and the process may be more of a hassle than it’s worth to him. How do we make it worth his while, and grease the wheels of FC City bureaucracy to make it happen? I’m asking Mr. Maller and anyone else with knowledge of these processes. It seems to me that there would have to be some sort of critical mass of neighborhood support to start.

    On a side note, I’m not sure how the “reasonably be combined” issue relates to the situation. There are no old substandard lots at issue here. These will be standard R1-A lots.

  8. Dan Maller, City of Falls Church on January 12th, 2011 3:51 pm

    I think the neighborhood is in R-1B, which requires 7,500 sf lots 60′ wide for any new subdivision. The former owner was the one who sued the City over the substandard lot height restriction, stating he owned 14 lots, which doesn’t mean he could build 14 houses, but might mean the owner could build some number of houses without changing the old subdivision lines, killing the tree, or demolishing the old house. If anybody has a plat I could easily show you what I mean.

  9. name not given on January 12th, 2011 6:51 pm

    I don’t know about the 14 lot thing, but I was told something completely different. The tax record shows the legal description as “LOTS 1, 2, & 25 “. I was told that at City Hall that there were two sliver-sized substandard lots on the edges of the property that are useless for building, which is consistent with the tax record. The old lines will be replaced by four new standard lots, including the lot for the mansion (he had tried four five but was rejected). He will have to conform to R-1B zoning restrictions for the new home lots, and the mansion will have to be on an even bigger lot (R1-A I believe). My question was, is there a mechanism for him to be given some wiggle room on conforming to R1-A and R1-B requirements for the purpose of sparing the tree?

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