UPDATE: Fairfax Approves New Guidelines for Fixer-Uppers

In 2004, John Howard Carpenter was seeking a variance from Fairfax County so he could expand his one-car garage to work on vintage cars.
In 2004, John Howard Carpenter was seeking a variance from Fairfax County so he could expand his one-car garage to work on vintage cars. (The Washington Post)
Sunday, July 16, 2006

It has been two years since the Virginia Supreme Court threw thousands of homeowners' plans for home additions into limbo with a ruling that prompted many local governments to stop issuing zoning variances.

People who had saved money to build bigger kitchens, bathrooms, second floors or new houses were stymied if those plans entailed construction that edged over their house's original lot line. They required a variance, a case-by-case exception to rules that limit how wide or tall a house can be.

For many Fairfax County residents, the waiting is over. Last week, the Board of Supervisors approved new rules to satisfy the court and homeowners that will allow the limited approval of variances to resume.

The new system, approved unanimously, allows homeowners to seek a special permit or exception from the Board of Zoning Appeals. The size of a house can grow up to 150 percent if the expansion cannot be completed within the neighborhood's limits on setbacks and lot lines. The renovation cannot, however, raze more than half of the existing house. Rules on setbacks and lot lines vary among neighborhoods and depend on the density allowed.

Planning and zoning officials devised the new system after 18 months of community meetings. Other proposals are on the way, officials said, including one that would allow fences taller than the county's legal limit of four feet. New guidelines on the passion-inducing issue of teardowns and the size of home that can replace them also are in the pipeline.

Several supervisors had concerns about undrained stormwater that home additions could create without a separate drainage system. James R. Hart, a member of the Board of Zoning Appeals, said that homeowners who want to add more than 2,500 square feet to their house could have to submit a grading plan. "Then we'll know whether stormwater control is required."

The Supreme Court took up the question of how much power local zoning officials have in 2004, when it ruled in the case of a McLean homeowner and his neighbors, who opposed a large new house on their street. The court said that zoning appeals boards can grant variances only in cases of "unnecessary hardship," in which the homeowner would lose all beneficial use of the property if he did not get a variance. In two years, the county has issued four variances that have met that standard.

The supervisors heard from 17 speakers last week, many pleading to let them move forward with renovation plans. Others, however, said the county was opening the door to gigantic additions and teardowns that prompted the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Hart predicted that the supervisors' action would prompt a flurry of calls from eager homeowners.

"I think we're going to get a spike," Hart said. "We don't know how big."

-- Lisa Rein

© 2006 The Washington Post Company