By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Fairfax County supervisors want to close a loophole that has enabled builders to erect hundreds of houses in recent years without meeting modern-day health and safety requirements for water, sewer and electrical systems.
Building on existing foundations and saving a wall or two has enabled builders to call their projects additions instead of what county officials say they really are: new houses. It has also allowed builders to avoid stringent permitting and inspection procedures required of new houses, officials say.
The results, they say, are houses marketed as just-built but tied to existing utility connections that in some cases are inadequate to serve the new, larger houses.
County supervisors say they want to close the loophole for health and safety reasons. But it is also about aesthetics. At a public meeting Monday, several supervisors lamented the proliferation of outsize houses that have prompted complaints from civic associations. By tightening the inspection process on building additions, the supervisors said, they hope to curtail such construction.
"Building a new house is one thing," said Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason). "Building a new house and saying it's a renovation when you're expanding the size by huge degrees -- that's not what the community is looking for."
A hulking castle of brick at 3433 Annandale Rd. is a perfect example, Gross said. With a 100-foot-wide facade, the eastern Fairfax house has more than 8,300 square feet of living space and looks more like an apartment building than the habitat of a single family. In Gross's mind, it is the embodiment of the McMansion: vastly larger than the houses nearby, opulent yet bland, and despised by its neighbors.
Yet the two-year-old home near Gallows Road used to be one of those half-century-old ramblers next door, and its owner, Nowsherwan Davis, contends that it still is -- with "a couple of rooms" added on top and out back.
Davis said he couldn't care less that the neighbors don't like his house. He also said that the county has no right to tell him what it should look like or how big it can be.
"Why would there be anything wrong with it?" Davis said. "It went through the inspection process."
In closing the loophole, supervisors would take another in a series of steps to catch up with a housing boom that in many ways has outpaced the government's ability to manage it. In recent months, the county has also moved to rein in too-tall houses (some as high as 60 feet), prohibit in-fill construction on odd-shaped lots and beef up the staff of building inspectors.
According to a county report, Fairfax receives an average of three applications a week for home additions that more closely resemble a new house than an old one with a sunroom or garage tacked on the side. In many cases, most or all of the home is demolished, and the only part saved is the foundation.
"I remember one house, the neighbors complained because it looked like they were digging underneath the foundation to try to do something," said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence). "It looked like the house was in danger of collapsing. We actually had it condemned."
The county's new rule would require any project in which construction exceeds 150 percent of the existing floor area and in which more than half of existing above-grade space is demolished to go through the permitting and inspection requirements of a new house. Some supervisors say they would like to make the threshold stricter.
Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Board of Supervisors, conceded that the county has little authority to regulate what's ugly. So long as a new house or renovation meets code requirements on such things as height, distance from the property line and utility construction, builders are free to construct houses and additions that the neighbors hate.
"Is it appropriate in a neighborhood for someone to come in and essentially demolish an existing structure and put in an enormous home on the same lot and change the shadows and change the view and really stick out as something that doesn't fit in with the harmony of the neighborhood?" Connolly asked. "We need to strike a balance."
Leonard Bumbaca of the Broyhill Crest Citizens Association, along Annandale Road, said houses such as Davis's are part of a trend that is distressing to longtime residents.
"We see people coming in and remodeling their houses, and that's normally a good thing," he said. "But we would hope that it would be something that fits organically into the neighborhood. And we're not seeing that."
In some neighborhoods where large houses are replacing the old, residents said they welcome the change.
"Everybody is happy," said Ghamar Nazari, who has lived on Woodley Lane near Merrifield for 30 years. Across from her one-story cottage is a striking new mansion of blue stucco that was built as an addition on its original foundation. "The house there was vacant. This is much better."
Others said they worry that many of the additions are being built to turn single-family homes into illegal apartments or boarding houses.
"I would hate to see the insides," said Dan Tierney, a computer engineer who also lives on Woodley Lane. "They are probably wall-to-wall bunk beds."
Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) has been stressing the need to crack down on overcrowding in single-family homes. Although he calls it a delicate issue that can pit historically white middle-class neighborhoods against the lower-income immigrants who move in, Kauffman said he believes that the ill effects of overcrowding -- including noise, litter and crime -- are real.
Closing the "addition" loophole is one more way for the county to fight the problem, he said.
"We have seen them built with deadbolts on the interior doors," Kauffman said. "This isn't about 'ugly' for me. It's about the fact that they're creating these commercial uses, and that's illegal."