Proposed Rule Aims to Tame Irregular Housing Lots

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Faced with rising numbers of house lots with contorted shapes, Fairfax County is about to require that they have more regular configurations -- despite protests from builders who say the restrictions would encourage sprawl.

For years, builders have used highly creative subdivision designs to carve out as many lots as possible while still complying with rules for access to roads and septic systems, among other regulations. The tricks, reminiscent of gerrymandered political districts, include running skinny legs of one lot across another to give a landlocked home a slice of road frontage, or placing a family's septic field in what would otherwise be the back yard of its neighbor in order to take advantage of good soils.

Now the county is on the verge of putting a stop to the most egregious variations using a complex formula adopted by many New England towns but almost nowhere else. County officials say action is needed because highly irregular lots are resulting in ever more confusion and friction among neighbors over boundaries and property maintenance and limiting residents' ability to make full use of their land.

"We don't paint property lines on the ground, and unless you do a survey or put up some fence, it's impossible to tell whose is whose and who's maintaining what," said Jeffrey L. Blackford, the county's director of code services.

The proposal underscores the challenge faced by Fairfax and other aging suburbs in the Washington area where buildable land is growing scarce. Local governments want to focus growth in established "in-fill" areas rather than in farmlands on the fringe, but packing homes into those remaining pockets often sparks neighborhood opposition and runs up against the county's building rules.

Builders say the Fairfax proposal would only encourage outward development by further limiting the number of homes they could put on available close-in land.

Irregular lots "are the only way we can provide these subdivisions that conform to ordinances and prevent sprawl," said Laura Hampton, a spokeswoman for the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association. "In a finite amount of space we're able to use more of the land for housing."

Several local jurisdictions regulate lot shapes by dictating the angles at which lot lines can be drawn from the road. The Fairfax proposal would go further, using a formula that divides the perimeter of a lot, squared, by the lot's area to calculate its "shape factor." The more convoluted the outline of a lot, the lower its chances of approval.

Under the proposed limit, which the planning commission will vote on later this month, 8 percent of the 625 lots approved in a recent three-year period would have been rejected. An additional 6 percent would have fallen in a gray area, where, county staff are suggesting, builders could try to seek an exemption. (The new rule is meant for smaller subdivisions that until now could be developed without full county review. County officials have been able to regulate lot shapes in larger projects that must go through formal rezoning.)

County officials point to these figures as proof that the new rules would affect only the most outlandish lot shapes and shrink typical in-fill subdivisions by only one or two homes each. They note that the many towns in Massachusetts that use a shape factor formula have a limit about 30 percent stricter than what Fairfax is considering.

Local builders say the impact would be greater than anticipated. Matt Marshall, with Land Design Consultants in Manassas, said some builders might decide not to develop a given parcel at all, rather than reduce it by one or two units, because the high cost of land could make the subdivision unprofitable if it is built with fewer units.

Pete Rigby, with the engineering firm Paciulli, Simmons & Associates in Fairfax, said the county is overstating the problem caused by irregular lots. Disputes between neighbors can be worked out through maintenance agreements or access easements, he said. "There are other ways of dealing with this rather than trying to make things boxy and square," he said. "It's not a good way to go about it, to limit the use of land."

But a tale from the Hickory Hills section of Oakton suggests that odd lot shapes can cause trouble. Two years ago, the owners of a house set back from Hickory Hills Drive objected when their neighbors built a playground directly in front of their house -- a plot that, to meet septic and frontage rules, was part of the neighbors' property even though it appeared to be the front yard of the first house.

The owners of the first house moved out two years ago, partly because of the playground, said the new owner, Cristie Heberle. She and her husband bought the house despite the odd layout, because there was little else on the market. So far, she said, they have managed fine. The neighbors let the Heberles' nieces and nephews use the playground, and the two families share mowing of the border areas.

But she said she could easily imagine problems arising between neighbors who don't get along.

"We're pretty laid-back . . . but you would have issues if you had a jerk next to you," she said. "There have to be limitations, instead of the developer coming in and just sticking a house wherever they can without any regard for what the community's going to get."

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