Board Votes to Limit Arlington Home Sizes

Some Arlington residents are unhappy about new houses that they consider too big for their surroundings.
Some Arlington residents are unhappy about new houses that they consider too big for their surroundings. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Arlington County Board voted last night to adopt strict limits on house sizes, in response to citizen complaints about the number of oversized houses cropping up in established neighborhoods.

"It was dramatic because we took an action targeting the most egregious McMansions we've experienced," board Chairman Jay Fisette (D) said of the 4 to 1 decision.

Fisette took pains to reassure those who feared their property values could be hurt. "Most homeowners will still have significant building potential," he said.

The vote capped four years of debate over what to do about house sizes in the county, where many bungalows and cottages have been torn down to make way for much larger houses. The restrictions will be Northern Virginia's toughest measures aimed at so-called McMansions.

The guidelines, which will apply to new homes and renovations, will limit the amount of room that a house, garage and driveway can occupy on a lot, on a scale that varies according to lot size.

For most residential lots in the county, that means the house alone can occupy 30 percent of a lot, or have a footprint of about 2,160 square feet. Currently, a house, driveway and garage can occupy 56 percent of a lot.

Developers and citizen activists who had opposed the limits expressed dismay, saying the decision could hurt the average homeowner trying to build a deck or add on to a house.

Builder Terry Showman, who led the fight to oppose the limits, called the board's actions "an embarrassment."

"It's incredibly unfair and dead wrong," said Showman. "Who's going to want to do business in the county now?"

Before the vote, more than 60 residents -- some of whom brought PowerPoint presentations -- crowded into the county board room for more than three hours of public comment.

As buildable land inside and just outside the Capital Beltway has become increasingly scarce and the demand for luxury homes has grown, Washington area jurisdictions have begun grappling with "mansionization." Last month, the Montgomery County Council voted to put new limits on house heights. Alexandria is studying the issue, and Fairfax County plans public hearings on several zoning controls.

Fisette said Arlington began examining the issue several years ago, responding to complaints that big houses violate the character of their neighborhoods, block sunlight and create problems with storm-water runoff.

Developers and some residents mobilized in recent days against the proposal, using fliers and phone messages to urge homeowners to turn out for the board vote. On Monday, residents in 33,000 Arlington homes received automatic-dial phone messages that began: "This is an Arlington homeowner alert."

The messages warned that the county was considering "drastic new limits" on what homeowners could build and that those limits could decrease home values.

Timothy M. Wise, president of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association, paid for the $1,000 dialing campaign, which he said was necessary to spread the word among residents.

Robert Swennes, who led the movement for new limits, said he was pleased with the decision.

"The county board did the right thing for the future of single-family neighborhoods in Arlington," he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company