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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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Dozens of other buyers are watching the case, which goes to Fairfax County Circuit Court next month, hoping that it might offer relief.

The Carlsons, stuck with an almost-complete estate, had planned to settle Oct. 1, their builder said, only to be notified that a spot check revealed that their home is out of compliance. Now a loan is at risk. They declined to comment.

Their builder, Adrian Edwards, said, "They asked me, 'Why didn't you tell me this was coming earlier?' " He said he told them he didn't think it would happen. He said that initially his understanding was that the county's new rule would not affect houses that were almost finished.

To those who say that the county is indifferent to their plight, county supervisors say they sought a compromise.

"There was no way we could solve everybody's problem," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). "Some builders gamed the system, and that's wrong. It's put homeowners into a very uncomfortable limbo. But the ordinance has to be enforced."

He also blamed the discrepancy in how height is measured and how often it is measured on "bureaucratic inertia" by the county's zoning and building staff.

That doesn't mean the county is changing its procedures. Heights will be spot checked only if an inspector suspects a roofline is too high. So one Centreville buyer said he plans to take his chances -- by doing nothing.

There is a mini-boom in construction on Founders Ridge Lane , where George Dukas says he thinks he can limit his damage to $15,000 to raise his grade. But he's irked that his house will be just as tall to his neighbor's eye, even if it complies with the code.

"It's absolutely ridiculous," said Dukas, who is in the flower business. "All the neighbors will look at is a retaining wall."

In the case of the couple who got their deposit back for the house in Oakton, neighbors had fired off an e-mail late last year to Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) to say that the seven-bedroom, $2.5 million house looked too tall. It was, by five feet.

Nik Akhtar of Good Star Homes, the couple's builder, appealed a stop-work order from the county that required him to lower the roof.

The limbo continued for six months. The couple wanted a resolution -- and a house. Akhtar returned their deposit, and they bought elsewhere. Akhtar has decided to cut five feet from the roof, regrade the property and put the house back on the market, at a cost to him of $50,000.

"We had framed the house. It was a good house. It's still a good house," Akhtar said. But, he said, "I cannot fight the government."


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