Supervisors Seek to Close Loophole on Height Limits

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Last summer, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors ordered stepped-up enforcement of the 35-foot height limit for new and renovated homes after learning that some builders received permits for plans that used height formulas more generous than the law allowed.

The board directed county inspectors to measure from the midpoint of the highest roofline and not allow builders to average the elevations of the roofs on a given house, as some had been doing. With that action, the supervisors considered the issue settled.

But yesterday, Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) said some builders in his southern Fairfax district are beating the height restriction by artificially elevating lots with as much as nine feet of extra dirt. The new material is piled to disguise first floors, he said, helping to break the 35-foot limit.

Hyland said the problem goes beyond aesthetics. The illegal elevation, he said, pushes storm runoff onto lower-lying homes nearby.

"Perhaps it is necessary for these new homeowners to climb to the lofty top and keep a vigil against their neighbors who may gather at midnight, torches and pitchforks in hand, ready to slay the Frankenhouse," said Hyland, who mentioned the Wellington, Hollin Hall and Mount Zephyr subdivisions as the source of most of the complaints.

"This is just another illustration of how our ability to regulate in-fill development is woefully inadequate," he said.

The board directed the county staff to take another look at the problem and return with recommendations for closing the apparent loophole. No information was immediately available to indicate how often such a loophole has been exploited.

A likely focus of the inquiry will be the judgment exercised by county inspectors and planners. Any changes in building lots larger than 2,500 square feet require a grading plan that must be approved by the county.

"The only thing I can say is that we'll look into it and come back with a recommendation," said Fairfax Public Works Director Jimmie D. Jenkins. "I thought we had resolved most of, if not all, the issues. The board clarified how we would measure the height limitations, and the industry was plainly made aware of those requirements."

Laura Hampton, communications director for the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association, said that her organization was unaware of Hyland's complaint but that it would look into the matter.

Other governments in the Washington region have struggled with the issue of home size, driven by heavy consumer demand for bigger houses with higher ceilings. In Montgomery County's Clarksburg Town Center, hundreds of houses were built too tall and too close to the street. The discovery led to the resignation of several county officials and the decision of the Planning Board chairman not to seek a second term.

In other action yesterday, the supervisors asked the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board to reconsider whether to set a $25 fee for those who seek screening for mental health care.

James P. Stratoudakis, director of quality management and emergency preparedness for the services board, said no one would be turned away because of an inability to pay.

But Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said that in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre and questions about the quality of treatment received by gunman Seung Hui Cho, it was ill-advised to impose a fee that might discourage someone from seeking help.

"I have to tell you, I have problems with that," Connolly told Stratoudakis. He added that the services board should wait for the recommendations of the Beeman Commission, which is studying the delivery of mental health services in Fairfax.

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