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Zoning Quirk Radically Altering Neighborhood

Behind the Voorhees family, left  --  Catherine with children Marien and John  --  and the Welches  --  Nancy and children Joey, Brian and Abby  --  are the remains of one Hollin Hall house already demolished.
Behind the Voorhees family, left -- Catherine with children Marien and John -- and the Welches -- Nancy and children Joey, Brian and Abby -- are the remains of one Hollin Hall house already demolished. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 24, 2006

A red Hummer rumbles behind Mount Vernon Parkway, a showy hulk charging through humble rows of Cape Cods and ramblers.

Debbie Goram slides out of the driver's seat, a real estate agent clutching a potential windfall for an unsuspecting homeowner. She crosses the modest front yard at 8036 Washington Rd. and shoves six pages under the front door.

"Enclosed is a sales contract to purchase your property in Hollin Hall Village," reads the cover page from Jobin Realty in Alexandria. "Please call me to discuss."

For $700,000 cash, a corporation named Hall Hollin LLC is offering to purchase Mark and Nancy Welch's brick Cape Cod, built after World War II in one of Fairfax County's oldest neighborhoods. No contingencies, no inspection, immediate closing. As is, because the house would be knocked right down.

In its place would rise not just one four-bedroom manse with granite countertops, ceramic tile, hardwood floors and a two-car garage, but two -- towering 3 1/2 stories on the 13,000-square-foot lot and selling for $1.4 million apiece.

This exponential development on a third of an acre will be possible through a quirk in Fairfax's zoning. The Welches' home and 64 others in the oldest section of Hollin Hall were built in the 1940s, each straddling two lots. Thousands like them are scattered on zoning maps from Falls Church to Kensington, older suburbs where land was priced inexpensively after the war for returning veterans.

Few homeowners in Hollin Hall knew that the original buyers had combined two narrow 5,000-square-foot properties, the minimum for a single-family home at the time and half of today's minimum lot size.

That left the door open for the lots to be divided 60 years later by developers who smelled a land rush in the neighborhood, 10 miles south of Washington and a quick drive from the wave of jobs that will soon wash over Fort Belvoir. As long as they meet county codes for setbacks from the road and from neighbors -- 12 feet -- two houses can be built just 30 or 40 feet wide where once there was one.

"I think it's going to be a beautiful neighborhood," Goram said.

But to many residents of this tree-lined community with a creek, coveted schools and a woodsy park steps away, Hollin Hall is beautiful right now. Tall, skinny McMansions will not make it more so, they say. The rutted lawns along Washington Road, where bulldozers flattened four houses last month and cut old sewer lines, have altered the landscape. Six families have taken the county to court, each donating money to cover legal fees.

A dozen houses on double lots have sold so far, and developers are eyeing about 40 more -- a bonanza for builders meeting buyers' demands to live close in.

With little land for those buyers, some developers are razing entire neighborhoods -- most recently 56 homes next to the Vienna Metro station -- to create dense mini-cities in their place. Or scraps of empty land have sprouted mansions, forming self-contained communities of identical estates. But the prospect of such a transformation lot by lot has left Hollin Hall Village, a bucolic enclave of 600 homes named for patriot George Mason's family estate, at war with itself.


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