Line Set On Height Violations In Fairfax

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Buyers of new or renovated homes in Fairfax County that exceed the 35-foot height limit will have to lower the roofs or raise the ground around the foundations before they move in, the Board of Supervisors decided yesterday.

But houses and townhouses in violation of the limit can stay as they are if the owners are already living in them, officials said.

"There are some people this leaves in limbo," Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said after he emerged from a lengthy closed-door meeting. "If you don't have an occupancy permit, your builder will have to fix the problem."

Some of the new houses exceed the height limit by as much as 10 feet.

For the county and many homeowners, the decision resolves the question of what to do about the widespread violations discovered this year. But it does not satisfy the Northern Virginia building industry. Builders contend that it is not their fault that Fairfax planners and inspectors for years have approved mansions and high-end townhouses with roof lines that exceed the limit.

"It's very disappointing," said Tom Donaldson, a builder and president of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association, which has been lobbying the supervisors for leniency. "What they've done is put the burden on people who have legitimately gone through the process and in good faith done their design plans and reviews."

County officials said about 15 buyers who have been denied occupancy permits because their new homes are too tall will be required to fix the problem. But Donaldson estimated that hundreds of others whose homes are under construction will have to tear down roofs, leading to delays and extra costs.

"The people who have been caught in the crossfire are the ones in the middle of construction," he said.

The violations stem from a difference of opinion between builders and the county on how to measure the height of a house. For years, builders have interpreted the zoning ordinance more liberally than the county when measuring structures with multiple roof lines. They averaged the heights of all the roof lines, while the county says the midpoint of the highest roof line should have been measured.

County officials acknowledged last week that they had issued valid permits to build at those heights and had failed to monitor compliance with their zoning rules.

Some county leaders had said they want to avoid a situation like the debacle at Clarksburg Town Center in Montgomery County, where hundreds of homes were found to be in violation of regulations. The homes were too tall and too close to the street.

Fairfax officials said last week that they did not know how many county homes violate height limits because they took only a sample. Industry leaders and some supervisors estimated the number in the thousands because houses with steeply pitched roofs and multiple roof lines have been popular for several years. Yesterday, Connolly estimated that "several hundred" houses were in violation.

The county issued a directive last month to clarify how heights should be measured. Fairfax is now requiring that a certified surveyor measure the height in some cases before an occupancy permit is issued.

The supervisors were divided at first over a remedy for existing houses.

"We're not giving in to the builders' request for a moratorium," Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) said, referring to an industry proposal to exempt all existing homes -- not just those that are occupied. Kauffman said his concern is for neighbors who must now live with towering mansions next door.

Connolly attributed the violations to a "misunderstanding" that was not motivated by malice on the builders' part. He said it would be unrealistic and unfair to force homeowners to tear down their roofs.

"We're taking a human approach," he said. "We don't want to put people out of their homes."

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