How Thousands of Fairfax Houses Got Too Tall

A complaint about the height of a house on Apple Brook Lane in Oakton prompted a county official to worry about
A complaint about the height of a house on Apple Brook Lane in Oakton prompted a county official to worry about "other violations in the neighborhood." (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006

Fairfax County officials concede that they were caught unprepared when builders put up thousands of houses that are far taller than the law allows.

They say the sheer size and pace of home building in the county prompted them to take the industry's word that it was following the rules -- even as, year after year, builders filed plans for new houses or renovations at the county's maximum height while overall estate sizes were mushrooming.

"The demand of the marketplace went from simple roofs to multi-roofed mansions," Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) said. "And the county's staff's ability to grasp how to measure didn't keep pace."

County supervisors and top building and zoning officials are loath to blame anyone for the mistakes, which resulted in the Board of Supervisors' decision July 31 to require buyers of new or renovated houses to adjust them to size. In the frenzy to satisfy their customers' preference for steeply pitched, innovative roofs above ceilings reaching 12 feet, builders had one way of measuring a house. The county had another, they say. The methods differed, sometimes by as much as 10 feet.

"I can't give an explanation for it," Supervisor Joan M. DuBois (R-Dranesville) said.

But how the mansions of Washington's largest suburb became taller underscores how powerful builders benefited from a regulatory philosophy based on the reality of local politics. Building and zoning officials say they are under pressure to keep a steady flow of permits for new houses and renovations in the pipeline, and second-guessing every plan was unrealistic.

"We're reviewing hundreds and hundreds of permits every day," Leslie Johnson, the county's senior deputy zoning administrator, said. "When you start questioning what builders are doing, they start getting irritated that we're holding up their permits. If we started to take 30 or 60 or 90 days to review stuff, the industry would go to the [county board] and say we're taking too long."

Added Public Works Director Jimmie Jenkins: "If we checked every little detail, the county government would be 10 times as large." Builders "were certifying that the height was 35 [feet] or less," he said. "We relied on that."

The discovery last year of widespread violations of the 35-foot height limit led to months of tense negotiations with the building industry. Although the supervisors agreed to let out-of-scale houses that are occupied stay as they are, builders are furious that people whose houses are under construction must decide whether to tear down roofs or fill in earth around foundations so they can be given a permit to move in.

"In 20 years, I've never seen the county look at the height of a structure," said Tom Donaldson, president of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association.

The violations came to light in December, when Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) received a complaint from a constituent that a house going up on Apple Brook Lane in Oakton was too tall. A surveyor hired by the county measured it at almost 40 feet.

Midway through construction, the buyer wanted a bigger, fancier roof. The builder, Good Star Homes, submitted new plans and got a new permit. But because the zoning department never saw those plans, no one checked whether the new roof would make the house too tall. Good Star is appealing a stop-work order requiring the roof to be lowered, arguing that the county approved the required permits.

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