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.
Creative Cauldron has added one more show to the run of Madeline and The Gypsies. The final performance of this very popular production will be at 5:00 pm Sunday, March 25 at ArtSpace Falls Church, 410 S. Maple Avenue. Adapted for the stage from the book by Ludwig Bemelmans, the musical features participants in Creative Cauldron’s Learning Theater Workshop. Order tickets in advance online at www.creativecauldron.org Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for students.