Fairfax To Revisit Renovation Restrictions

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006

Annandale, like many older neighborhoods in Fairfax County, has some crooked and narrow lots. Tracey and Dan Stegner have been yearning to tear down their 1944 Cape Cod on Virginia Avenue and build a 3,000-square-foot home with a garage up front.

Their half-acre lot is 80 feet wide. County rules allow the Stegners' home to be 40 feet wide, but they want an extra 10 feet. To do that, they need permission from the county government in the form of a variance. But they can't get one.

For more than two years, thousands of homeowners such as the Stegners, who have saved money to build bigger kitchens, bathrooms, second floors over carports or new houses, have had their plans frozen by Fairfax officials. The county virtually stopped granting what are called variances in 2004 after the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that zoning officials were handing them out too leniently.

"The law now says we can build a 40-foot-wide house," said Tracey Stegner. "We're not looking for a mansion. But we want to use the space on our property in the best way we can."

Variances have for years been common solutions to the space crunch in Northern Virginia's land-starved older communities, where homes were built much smaller than today's 3,000-square-foot dream Colonials. Variances are case-by-case exceptions to rules that limit how wide or tall a person's house can be.

The situation could change this month when the Board of Supervisors takes up a proposal to satisfy both the court and homeowners seeking permission for additions. Planning and zoning officials are recommending that limited approvals of variances resume, a prospect that's cheering some homeowners and infuriating others.

"We've got to provide a relief valve for people who want to make changes" to their homes, said James R. Hart, a member of Fairfax's Board of Zoning Appeals.

Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), whose district includes many older enclaves, said she's heard from many frustrated homeowners over the past two years.

"I've had people who just wanted to pop up their house, but they couldn't because they would need a variance," Smyth said. "A couple buys a house, it's small, the next thing they have a baby and they really need some room."

The new system, devised after 18 months of community meetings, would allow homeowners to seek a special permit or special exception for their project instead of a variance. A home's size could grow up to 150 percent if the expansion can't be completed within the neighborhood's rules for setbacks and lot lines. But the renovation couldn't knock down more than half of the existing home. Depending on the neighborhood and its zoning, owners could stray over the minimum number of feet required between homes, bringing them closer to their neighbors.

Other planning and zoning boards have continued to grant limited variances; in counties with more recent growth, such as Loudoun and Prince William, the court ruling did not change much because many neighborhoods have newer zoning laws. Arlington County and Alexandria also are trying to find a middle ground.

The changes are scheduled to go before the Fairfax County board July 10. Other recommendations to be considered in future meetings are to allow fences taller than four feet -- now the county's legal limit -- and to allow pipestem lots with very little street frontage, Hart said. The board also plans to tackle the emotional issue of teardowns and the residences that can replace them -- the issue at the heart of the state Supreme Court case.

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