Zoning Plan Stirs Uneasy Questions In Arlington
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Arlington County, which prides itself on racial tolerance and economic diversity and has sneered at anti-immigrant policies in nearby jurisdictions, now finds itself facing some of the same questions.
Many longtime residents are voicing fears that a new zoning proposal will bring an influx of immigrants and poor people. Support for affordable housing initiatives is almost an article of faith in the Democrat-dominated enclave, but the proposal to allow rental units in single-family neighborhoods is challenging that orthodoxy.
At issue is an effort by housing advocates to amend Arlington's zoning ordinance to allow homeowners in single-family neighborhoods to build rental units on their properties. The additional housing would be limited to 750 square feet and permitted only on properties occupied by their owners and would presumably rent for less money than stand-alone housing.
"This won't solve the housing crisis, but it will help," said architect Susan Retz, former chairman of the county Housing Commission. She chairs the Alliance for Housing Solutions, a nonprofit advocacy group.
The issue won't reach the County Board for the first time until Tuesday, but an increasing number of residents are up in arms about the proposal, which they say they think would worsen parking problems, traffic congestion and crowding and increase the number of absentee landlords and illegal immigrants. A parade of residents has appeared at recent county meetings to protest the concept, still in the planning stages, even as county officials tweak the measure.
Retiree Rick Barry, 75, said that he considers the plan a wrongheaded assault on Arlington's way of life and that he fears it would attract immigrants displaced from Prince William County, which has enacted a crackdown on illegal immigrants.
"You work hard to get your family into a single-family neighborhood," Barry said. "We have a very nice neighborhood character, and we should do whatever it takes to keep it as it is."
Merryl Burpoe, a government relations consultant, said Arlington's "beautiful, stable" neighborhoods are at risk.
"We moved here for the quality of life Arlington affords," she said. "We paid a lot for our homes."
When homeowners in the Arlington Ridge Civic Association were surveyed about the proposal, 92 percent were opposed, said Larry Mayer, president of the Arlington County Civic Federation.
"A lot of single-family homeowners believe these [rental units] will proliferate all over Arlington," Mayer said.
Housing advocates, on the other hand, say they think the idea makes obvious sense. Such accessory dwellings have provided affordable housing in many other places, including Georgetown, Dupont Circle, Capitol Hill and Mount Pleasant in the District; in Montgomery and Fairfax counties; and outside the region, such as in Santa Cruz, Calif., they say.
"Everywhere that people need a place to live, these things are happening," Retz said. She said she has been disappointed by the opposition of critics, some of whom she thinks are worried the units will attract more immigrants.
"I don't think Arlington is that liberal sometimes," Retz said. "It's more conservative than we thought. . . . No matter how you explain it, people find it threatening."
The Housing Commission deliberated over the idea for more than two years. Under the current plan, the units would probably be limited to two residents, would require an annual inspection and would need to meet parking standards. They would not be detached units, and the properties would need to meet all lot size requirements for approval. In addition, the larger unit would need to be occupied by its owner.
This is not the first time Arlington has debated accessory units. In 1983, a similar proposal was floated, and the concept was rejected almost immediately by irate residents.
"It didn't even get to a vote" and soon after "sort of died," said Fran Lunney, coordinator of housing planning for the county.
But this time, the concept appears to have substantial political support among county leaders. J. Walter Tejada (D), the County Board chairman, cited consideration of the zoning amendment as part of his "Agenda for Progress" on Jan. 1, when he presented his legislative priorities for the year. He named board member Jay Fisette (D) to lead the effort.
The board is not expected to make a final decision until July.
Barbara A. Favola (D), vice chair of the board, who is running for reelection, said that only a third of the county's rental stock was affordable last year, down from more than half in 2000. She said she thinks it is possible to reconcile the conflicting points of view by setting careful standards.
"We hope people will realize this is not a bad idea, that it won't change life as they know it in their single-family neighborhoods," she said. She said she will watch how the "conversation evolves" but will not be influenced in her political decisions by what she called "pockets of anxiety."
The controversy is a challenge to the vaunted "Arlington Way," the civil but often lengthy manner in which the community resolves problems by finding common ground.
"It seems to be very polarized," Mayer said. "Very few people are neutral."