2 Zoning Board Members Quit in Dispute Over City Manager’s House

By STEPHEN SIEGEL
Falls Church Times Staff

March 22, 2012

What started as a request for a variance on City Manager Wyatt Shields’ new house exploded into a controversy this week that has so far caused two members of the City’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) to submit their resignations.

The two resignations are those of John Murphy, the board chairman, and Kent Taylor, who each sent letters detailing their unhappiness with City officials this week. Mr. Murphy’s letter, a source says, was a terse two sentence statement that said little other than that he objected to “city policies” and as a result couldn’t continue his service on the board.

Mr. Taylor’s letter, a different source says, is more detailed, but the Times has not yet been able to procure copies of either. Mr. Murphy declined to release his and declined to comment. Asked via email if his resignation letter speaks for itself, he responded: “Yes.”

The controversy began last fall, when Patricia Shields, Mr. Shields’ wife and the general contractor on the new home they are building at 900 Parker Street, requested a variance from the city zoning code to reduce the required “setback” — the house’s distance from the street — from 30 feet to 25 in order to add a second story to the existing one-story rambler.

The house predates the 30 foot setback requirement, and already sits just 25 feet from Parker Street, five feet less than is allowed now. So granting the variance would allow a second story without moving anything closer to the street than it already is, and the board approved it Oct 13.

But the board denied another request, this one for a front porch that would extend 10 feet from the structure. Under the code, a front porch can extend up to eight feet, making the dispute about a difference of just two feet. Nevertheless, the board denied the request the same night.

At this point, it seemed like a minor dispute. But it flared in December when Mr. Murphy visited Mr. Shields’ new home and saw that what was being constructed did not match the board’s ruling, he said at a meeting of the BZA March 15. Instead, a porch was being constructed 10 feet wide, in what Mr. Murphy said “appeared to countermand” the denial from Oct. 13.

City Zoning Administrator John Boyle was out of town the day of the hearing, but City Planning Director James Snyder and City Attorney John Foster defended the city’s decision to grant a permit despite the BZA’s order, telling the board that allowing the porch to extend 10 feet would only place it in line with the existing front stoop, which they said was within the city’s rights.

“The City’s position is that this is consistent with the ‘policy and practice of the City,” Mr. Snyder said.

Mr. Murphy responded by asking where the city code specifically allowed that. “Help me out here,” he said. “It seems to go against the intent of the BZA.”

He continued: “The administrative overruling of the BZA concerns me very much going forward. This is not something we like to see happen.”

Under the law, a denial of a variance by the BZA can be appealed within 30 days in Arlington County Circuit Court, but not in any other fashion.

Mr. Taylor also loudly objected at the hearing. “If this (the city’s decision) is okay, the BZA is useless.” He added later that the board members are all volunteers and he can “find other things I can do with my time.”

He and Mr. Murphy now have done so.

Only one other member of the five-person board was at the hearing. Darcy Williamson didn’t seem to have the same objections; he voted against sending a letter to the city asking for clarification on why they acted as they did. Messrs. Murphy and Taylor voted yes, but three votes were required, so no action was taken.

Justin Castillo and vice chair Howard Stoodley were not at the hearing. Mr. Castillo said he would like to listen to the tapes of the meeting before forming an opinion; Mr. Stoodley told the Falls Church Patch that he thought the resignations were “unwarranted.”

This isn’t the first time that zoning issues and the BZA have been controversial in the city.

In 2005, several residents challenged Mr. Boyle’s ruling on a front-yard setback at 807 Ridge Place, and the BZA overruled Mr. Boyle. The BZA later withdrew that decision, leading to a lawsuit and settlement with the city, according to Gordon Theisz, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

In 2007, Mr. Theisz and several other residents brought suit in Arlington, alleging that city officials were not adhering to the settlement. They lost, but the settlement remained in effect.

In 2010, residents on Forest Drive won a case at the BZA that upheld the same settlement and ruled that Mr. Boyle decided incorrectly on a setback issue involving new construction at 217 Forest. The house subsequently was built further from the street than the original zoning decision required — and as the neighbors wanted.

But the case that sparked this week’s resignations also adds an unusual level of complexity in that it involves a home being built by the city manager, who has power over the employment of the people making the decisions that directly affect him.

Nobody is asserting there’s any corruption involved, but those concerned about conflicts of interest in government could be alarmed. It’s not clear what else Mr. Shields could do; there may not be a provision in the city code for such an unusual situation.

One possibility might be to have Mr. Shields, or any city employee in a similar situation, be required to go directly to the all-volunteer BZA, rather than city staff, when seeking a variance from the zoning code.

Asked to comment on the case since he’s both the city manager and it’s his house, Mr. Shields declined, citing Virginia law on personnel matters.

“We regret the resignations of BZA members John Murphy and Kent Taylor and we thank them for their years of service,” spokeswoman Susan Finarelli said via email. “City Board and Commission members are considered to be personnel under Virginia law, and it is City policy to not comment on personnel matters.”

Mr. Boyle did not respond to a request for comment via email.

By
March 23, 2012 

Comments

27 Responses to “2 Zoning Board Members Quit in Dispute Over City Manager’s House”

  1. Daren Coppock, Falls Church on March 23rd, 2012 7:58 am

    We had a similar setback issue when we added a second story, and had to design and build it to comply with the setback even though our home also predated the requirement. It was a bit of a hassle to do and seemed a bit nit-picky at the time but it was the rule and we complied. Shouldn’t the same rules should apply to everyone?

  2. Grace Taylor on March 23rd, 2012 9:12 am

    Thank you Mr Coppock. A rule is a rule. It would be unfair (to say the least) to allow special exemption to the city manager’s house. Those who are in power should set good examples to following the rules.

  3. R. Speir on March 23rd, 2012 9:27 am

    This is a very well written article.

  4. vlfrance, City of Falls Church on March 23rd, 2012 10:18 am

    Excellent article which states public facts, and I appreciate that all parties involved were contacted for comment prior to “publishing”. The parties involved do make this issue more controversial, but I personally do not suspect corruption.

  5. Sally Ekfelt on March 23rd, 2012 10:51 am

    I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Grace Taylor. By their actions – which are not in dispute – it certainly appears that the City Manager and staff have thumbed their noses at the BZA. How unfortunate for our city and our citizens.

  6. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on March 23rd, 2012 11:19 am

    I don’t know anything about this issue other than what’s written in this article. It seems like Mr. Coppock could have asked the BZA for an exception and if they approved it then he would have been within the rules.

    The part of this that seems unusual is the front porch. The BZA turned down the request but the City apparently authorized it anyway.

  7. Daren Coppock, Falls Church City on March 23rd, 2012 11:36 am

    Andy – we did consider requesting a variance, but were advised by our contractor that it would considerably lengthen our timeline and that based on previous experience, the chance of getting one was pretty small. So we elected to comply with BZA’s ruling rather than requesting a formal appeal. We didn’t even think about trying to do a political shortcut via City Hall.

  8. Patty Shields on March 23rd, 2012 12:21 pm

    I normally don’t respond to blogs but, since I was never contacted about this story by the FCT, I wanted to make sure that the facts about the process are clear. I am a licensed builder and was in charge of this project from the start. My husband, the City Manager, was not involved in any part of the process. We did not talk about it at home. He did not want to discuss it and we did not. He wanted nothing to do with the case and anyone who knows him knows he works hard maintain appropriate boundaries. He probably would be annoyed that I am writing this comment.

    In any case, I submitted a house plan for a variance, because our house is a nonconforming lot as the article points out as are more than 25% of the city’s housing stock. We bought a rambler that I wanted to redo for our family as I have with other houses. The variance was partially approved for the second floor, but a variance was not granted the front addition which was a combination of a large front porch extending to a screened porch and deck overtop.

    I went back to the drawing board and removed the entire screened porch section and the changed the overall design of the house. I then submitted a design for a smaller cantilevered front porch that extends no further than the existing stoop. As I understood it, this type of porch is common practice in the City. Again, as I understood it, the resubmission of new or substantially altered plans is reviewed denovo by the Zoning Administrator. The plan was reviewed denovo and was approved as have other such porches been approved. No appeal or complaint was made by any neighbor. I was contacted in January, more than two months after I had started building, by the zoning administrator about the BZA chair’s concern and responded with the same explanation as above. I could understand his questions but assumed that the explanation of the process followed would allay his concerns.

    I followed the process as laid out by the code. Whether a cantilevered front porch is an appropriate reading of the code is not my area of expertise. That issue was decided by the zoning administrator in keeping with prior decisions and as I understand it cantilevered front porches have never come before the BZA.

    I did not attend the meeting last week so I can’t comment on what occurred there or what was said.

    If anyone is interested to see the plans – both versions – or look at the porch or take a tour of the house, they are welcome to do so, just send me an email to pattyshields@gmail.com or call me at 571-334-7215

    Thanks

    Patty Shields

  9. FCCFamily on March 23rd, 2012 1:38 pm

    The City Manager should never have put his employees, the City Planning Director and the City Attorney, in a position to have to review the BZA determination on his variance request. He has a responsibility to the City’s taxpayers to not engage in what, at best, is an appearance of conflict. He has lost credibility and our trust.

  10. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on March 23rd, 2012 2:03 pm

    Hi Daren, my point was just that it sounds like the issue of setback for the 2nd story was handled within the “rules” – the BZA approved that request. I’m not saying the process is easy or you would have been approved (no idea) – I’m just saying the BZA was bypassed on that issue (according to this article).

  11. Suzanne Updike on March 23rd, 2012 3:47 pm

    Who updates the BZA portion of the city website? The last agenda posted online is dated March 2011. No meeting minutes have been posted since 2010.

  12. Dennis Szymanski, Falls Church on March 23rd, 2012 4:43 pm

    Thanks for providing more depth for the story, Patty. In my view, the safe way would have been “recusal” and have that be part of the BZA’s public record.

  13. Jeff DuBro, Falls Church City on March 23rd, 2012 4:59 pm

    It certainly is nice to see a civilized forum on this issue.

    Thank you Patty for describing the process – that all makes perfect sense. I want to commend her for choosing to keep the existing house and add &remodel it as you have. By right, you could have torn down the entire house and built a character-less monster while at the same time disturbing a large area of earth and removing trees; with the result being fully within the specifications of the Zoning Ordinance with no BZA involvement whatsoever. Patty chose a differnt path – one that works with the site and the existing structure. You have preserved the integrity of the site and have worked within the rules of the City as they have been applied to others.

    I also agree with the comment above about this being a well-written article though I am disappointed at the fact that Patty Shields was not asked to contribute to the content of the article. Ms. Shileds is the builder of the project and is the one who pulled the permit – to assume that Mr. Shields was driving this process from his position as a City Official is an unfortunate assumption.

    I also know Wyatt Shields personally and professionally and know his integrity to be beyond reproach. Those who suggest or assert otherwise must not know the type of man Wyatt Shields is.

  14. Mark Scardiglia, Falls Church on March 23rd, 2012 5:44 pm

    Time out. A husband and wife are building a home for themselves and “We did not talk about it at home.” Seriously? How can that be? That statement makes “appropriate boundaries” sound like “plausible deniability”.
    I don’t claim an understanding of the variance process and am not weighing in on that part, but I find the not-talking-about-it-at-home part unbelievable. That said, it is a nice looking house and I applaud the fact that they didn’t build a McMansion.

  15. Edward B Hillegass, Falls Church, VA. on March 23rd, 2012 6:46 pm

    Why should we “The People” be surprised that an arrogant person such as our City Manager, Wyatt Shield would ignore our BZA’s denial of variance for a front porch 10 feet from the structure. Under the law, a denial of a variance by the BZA can be appealed within 30 days in Arlington County Circuit Court, but not in any other fashion and Wyatt Shield should have taken this route to appeal the boards findings (period).
    When our City Manager disregarded the BZA’s denial of a 10 feet front porch from structure he showed all of us that he has no respect for members of the BZA’s and the court systems of Virginia. I am thinking maybe the Obama campaign may needs another Czar!!!!!

  16. Teddy Rutledge on March 23rd, 2012 8:42 pm

    Blog? Is that what this is?

  17. TheBoss on March 24th, 2012 7:35 am

    I think the point Patty was making is that she did not appeal the BZA’s decision. Instead, she changed the plans and resubmitted them to the city without a variance request and they were approved. Seems pretty reasonable to me.

  18. Steven Valley on March 25th, 2012 10:00 am

    OMG! Who’s driving this l’il love boat of a city? Gilligan?

    When it comes to the BZA we’ve gone from the ridiculous to the sublime. The sheer fact that this case, of ALL the cases before it, has gotten hopelessly confused and inconsistent, is both poetic and comical.

    Well… if anything at least we can all sit back and watch the wonderful theater this story has become…

  19. rob loblaw on March 27th, 2012 2:49 am

    Who cares what the Shields do to their own land?! They own it. Their extra 5′ of porch is not going to hurt anyone, this is a waste of time. Maybe more time should be spent on real issues like giving school and City employees a much needed raise. Every year they don’t get a pay increase our kid’s IQ gets lower. Unhappy teachers and workers move on to other jobs and are replaced by FNGs.

  20. Gordon Theisz, City of Falls Church on March 27th, 2012 8:47 am

    To Mr. Loblaw, TheBoss, and Mr. DuBro: The city staff ignored city zoning laws by approving this porch. This is just one in a seven year series of improper zoning department actions.

    The gelatinous approach the city zoning department takes in applying code language when it is inconvenient is the problem here and this time the city manager (who is responsible for not correcting these problems in the past) and his wife are the beneficiaries.

    Two of five BZA members found this so unpalatable that they felt compelled to resign, loudly and clearly demonstrating how bad a problem there is in Falls Church zoning.

  21. name withheld on March 27th, 2012 12:35 pm

    Is there a list of the improper zoning actions mentioned above by Dr. Theisz, with photos, anywhere online?

    Name withheld because I might have a project needing zoning review or a permit one day.

  22. Gordon Theisz, City of Falls Church on March 27th, 2012 4:27 pm

    Name, perhaps a better word would be “controversial” rather than “improper” as I used above as few of the decisions have led to a legal finding against the City in the BZA or courts. I feel they are improper because they did not follow the letter of the code. The BZA and courts favor the idea that the zoning adminstrator’s interpretations are presumed correct, thus getting a finding against the ZA is a very difficult hurdle. The problem is making this presumption if a ZA is not correct. I have for years advocated following the code as written, In the above case, per the code a projection of a porch is only allowed to be 8 feet from the front setback, but this porch projects beyond 8, with its supports at 8, and the remainder cantelevered. I will see if I can provide a list of these decisions in a future post.

  23. name withheld on March 28th, 2012 8:37 am

    “I will see if I can provide a list of these decisions in a future post.”

    Thanks, Gordon. I would be interested in seeing that. There are probably also many projects which violate the spirit of the code, but I suppose nothing can be done in those cases. It’s more of a situation where the community/social compact is broken, but no actual laws.

  24. Steven Valley on March 28th, 2012 1:35 pm

    Yo… Rob Loblaw, we all hear you on the teacher raise issue and I am pretty sure all of us would agree with you on that subject.

    However…

    Remember that property values and schools are intertwined in very intrinsic ways.

    Why does that matter?

    If we have “gelatinous” (I like that word Gordon) laws regarding BZA issues no one will want to build here because it’s too precarious to do so. Think about it, “name withheld” is already nervous about it, and for everyone of the “name withheld’s” out there? There surely are many more afraid to even come forward.

    Arlington and Fairfax already laugh at us about our inability to handle this subject in a consistent way. We are so bush league.

    That fact that we can’t even get it right on the City Managers house when his wife is running the show just underscores our ineptitude.

  25. Gordon Theisz, City of Falls Church on March 28th, 2012 5:52 pm

    My position is that our zoning laws are mostly fine the way they are written. They just need to be followed as written. It is the gelatinous interpretation of the law that is the issue. The BZA only is involved when there is a question of the interpretation or a homeowner needs an exception for a hardship. Otherwise the BZA remains silent. In most cases a homeowner builds what the City approves, like is happening here. The question is on the approval.

  26. Franklin Marshall, Falls Church City on July 15th, 2014 5:06 pm

    This was clearly a conflict of interest. One of many that has occurred under Mr. Shields’ “leadership”. Having regularly attended board meetings for years, I’ve seen the city variously hire unqualified city executives (the CTO is a high school graduate), bully his own staff, and act like a little Caesar.

    It’s no wonder Fairfax and Arlington laugh at us.

    Thanks God we have a great police force and Sheriff.

  27. Name Withheld, East Falls Church on July 26th, 2014 10:53 am

    Mrs. Shields,

    Thanks for your post. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter if you and your husband, the City Manager, did not talk about it at home. Your husband is a co-owner and has a financial interest in actions taken by his subordinates that work for the City. This conflict of interest is not consistent with the highest levels of ethical standards. It is also fair to say that the Little City has a recent history of questionable zoning decisions.

Feel free to leave a comment. Please increase the credibility of your post by including your FULL NAME and CITY. All comments are subject to editing for courtesy and content.