City Appears Poised to Restrict Substandard Lot Development
By STEPHEN SIEGEL
Falls Church Times Staff
September 4, 2012
After years of controversy, Falls Church City appears likely to restrict development on so-called “substandard lots,” which would be a victory for residents concerned about the increasing density in some neighborhoods.
That said, there’s no guarantee the City will act, although the Council is scheduled to hear four options for new restrictions at tonight’s meeting, including one being recommended by City staff.
But if new restrictions are approved, the big losers would be property owners who own substandard lots, which would suffer a loss in value of perhaps $100,000 or more if they no longer could be subdivided and built upon.
Substandard lots are those that are smaller than the existing zoning code requires for building. Those requirements vary throughout the city, generally from 7,500 square feet to 11,250 square feet.
In the Ellison Heights neighborhood, for example, many lots are just 6,000 square feet, but the current code says they can still be developed, so long as they cannot be “reasonably combined” with adjacent properties to create a lot that conforms to the code.
It is those two words — “reasonably combined” — that are at the heart of the controversy. What does it mean in practice?
Consider the case of 406 Van Buren Street in the city’s Broadmont neighborhood. Developer ASR Designer Homes purchased for $620,000 (Correction, Sept. 5: $690,000) a lot that more than meets the requirements for the zoning district it is in.
Correction, Sept. 6: Although the Van Buren lot was marketed as one lot, ASR bought one half of the lot, while Joey Randhawa bought the other half. ASR is a company owned by Mr. Randhawa’s father.
The lot, according to the real estate listing, is 15,000 square feet, while the zoning minimum for building there is 11,250.
But the existing house was built across what had at one time been two lots, and the lots were then effectively combined into one. Now, lot has been subdivided into two, rendering both lots substandard for the R1A zoning district. If the city follows recent practice, it will allow two houses to be built on the lot where previously there was just one.
Neighbors are challenging that outcome, and the Board of Zoning Appeals is scheduled to hear their argument Sept. 13.
The reform being recommended by city staff would clarify the definition of those lots that can be “reasonably combined.” According to a memo from City Manager Wyatt Shields, the option would “expressly provide that contiguous substandard lots with a house straddling them could not be developed separately.”
Another option under consideration, proposed by City Zoning Administrator John Boyle, would require the owner of a substandard lot to apply for a subdivision permit before being allowed to develop two houses. This subdivision permit would have to be approved by the Planning Commission.
Option 3 would require the City Council to add an “intent” statement to the city code, making it clear that where a house sits on two substandard lots, the two lots could not be developed separately.
Option 4 would leave things the way they are currently being handled.
It is unknown where the seven city councilors stand on the issue. But they seem interested in making a change; they requested Mr. Shields and Planning Director James Snyder give them some options for reform.
By Stephen Siegel
September 4, 2012