City’s Planning Head Seeks to Overturn City Zoning Administrator’s Order

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
November 14, 2013

It seemed likely to be a contentious meeting of Falls Church City’s Zoning Board of Appeals. On the agenda for tonight’s meeting was the rare situation of one City official asking the board to overturn another City official’s order.

Jim Snyder, the City’s planning director, had filed a motion seeking to overturn an order by City Zoning Administrator John Boyle. Mr. Boyle’s ruling would have allowed the new owners of an historic house at 311 Grove Avenue to demolish the home.

But the meeting was abruptly canceled Thursday afternoon, just hours after the Falls Church Times wrote about the issue. City Attorney John Foster informed Mr. Snyder that, in his opinion, Mr. Snyder lacked standing to file the appeal. At this juncture, it is unclear why, making an already bizarre situation even more so.

The saga began late last week, when the Times learned that Mr. Snyder was challenging Mr. Boyle’s ruling. The newspaper repeatedly sought comment from the parties involved since late Friday night, but no response came.

So it’s not clear why Mr. Boyle issued the order, nor why Mr. Snyder is challenging it. But multiple sources familiar with the process suggest Mr. Snyder believes Mr. Boyle acted in violation of the City’s historic preservation ordinance, which requires an historic home to be listed for sale for a year at fair market value — to see if it can be sold and saved — before it legally can be demolished.

Sources also say the house had been for sale several years ago, but at that time it only was offered with two adjacent lots, so there may be some dispute as to whether that attempt to sell it met the law’s legal standard.

However, if that is the reason Mr. Boyle felt the law’s requirements had been met, it still isn’t clear why he would issue the demolition order; the City code requires the Historic Architecture Review Board or the City Council to evaluate the case and permit a demolition of an historic house, according to people familiar with the process.

A 2012 document from City Planning Specialist Debra Gee appears to support that view. She wrote, in an internal memo to the Planning Commission, that the review board’s “role is to review demolition requests and cases of demolition by neglect.” The board has not reviewed the Grove case.

The previous owner of the Grove home also sought to demolish it. He appealed to the City Council for the right to do so and was denied, a source says. That owner then sold it this year to new owners, who have not listed it for sale, but asked for demolition approval from Mr. Boyle, who granted it, bringing us to where the process is today.

It may not be surprising that there are different opinions on various issues even within the tight-knit circle at City Hall. But it is rare, if not unprecedented, for one official to publicly challenge another, and it’s even more unusual for an official to take what amounts to legal action against another official’s formal decision.

How that affects the ability of the two men and their departments to work together remains to be seen. It could be just a professional disagreement, or it could be more personal and emotional. Without any response from those involved, there is no way to know for sure.

And now that the meeting has been canceled and Mr. Snyder, under advice from Mr. Foster, has withdrawn his appeal, it isn’t clear what happens next. Will the home be demolished? Can anyone else, at this late date, appeal Mr. Boyle’s ruling?

With City officials not talking, the Times cannot yet provide an answer.

This story has been updated to reflect that Mr. Snyder’s appeal was withdrawn and the meeting canceled.

November 14, 2013 


2 Responses to “City’s Planning Head Seeks to Overturn City Zoning Administrator’s Order”

  1. Gordon Theisz, City of Falls Church on November 14th, 2013 10:07 pm

    I am not surprised.

    The zoning administrator reports to the planning director for administrative purposes, but to the city manager for ultimate hiring and firing. This case was highly unusual because the superior was brining action against his subordinate.

    This is not the first time a planning director has taken issue with the zoning administrator as Mr. Snyder’s predecessor clashed with the administrator over issues concerning renewal of special permits and other things.

    To be sure, zoning decisions can be contentious issues, especially when a property owner feels the decisions don’t allow what they want. What is different is that in Falls Church, over and over it is the neighbors, and now even the superior, that appeal and question the zoning administrator’s decisions. And when this happens, the City circles the wagons and decrees “you don’t have standing.” Over and over.

    I have called for supervision and oversight of the zoning department for eight years, but as long as the city manager holds the ultimate authority and doesn’t exercise it, we can expect continued embarrassments such as this.

  2. TFC on November 15th, 2013 11:58 am

    I wonder if this is similar to what happened with the Fulton Ave. house? Hope the Grove homeowners do not demo before the subject is thoroughly explored by the City.

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