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Homeowners Living in Limbo

George Dukas and his builder are considering raising the grade along his 13,000-square-foot McLean house so that it will meet Fairfax County's house height requirement.
George Dukas and his builder are considering raising the grade along his 13,000-square-foot McLean house so that it will meet Fairfax County's house height requirement. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 19, 2006

George Dukas is in Hilton Head, but he has been on his BlackBerry with his builder, and they have figured out that they can put eight feet of dirt on the side of the 13,000-square-foot McLean house, and he can move in.

Two lots from his house on Founders Ridge Lane is a European provincial that Fairfax County pronounced as 4.5 feet too tall, under its controversial move last month to tighten enforcement of height restrictions. It has refused certificates of occupancy to anyone who had not already moved in, regardless of how close a house was to completion.

Carol and Gene Carlson are pleading with the Board of Supervisors for an exception so they can settle Oct. 1 and won't have to tear down their pitched roof.

There are others. There is George Sagatov, a builder at Langley Farms, also in McLean, who figures that if he adds a parapet or cupola to the roofline, it will bring him into compliance.

That's because the county measures to the roof midpoint; adding a feature to make the highest point higher lowers the midpoint.

One couple walked away from the controversy and got their $400,000 deposit back and bought in Clifton when told their house was too high, their builder said.

But for Phong Mai and Anh Trinh-Mai, none of those options work. Their dream house on 1.7 gently sloping acres in Oakton was built to conform to feng shui principles, which stress harmony with nature.

Tearing down the roof -- the only viable way to lower the house by four feet -- would upset the home's harmonic balance.

"To me, to remove a roof is like chopping off your head," said Anh Trinh-Mai, who goes to the house and prays for a miracle every day at a makeshift altar with incense and Buddhas in an oak bookcase in the empty library.

These buyers are among many whose houses are in various stages of construction but who are also caught in a regulatory cul-de-sac created by the county's abrupt announcement.

Their plight has its roots in different ways of measuring house heights and in years of county reliance on builders to police themselves.

Although the county measures to the midpoint of a roof, builders said they usually average the height of various roofs on any single house to arrive at a height.


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