The Falls Church City Council has given preliminary approval to a citywide historic district to help stop demolition and drastic alterations to the town's dwindling number of old buildings.
The proposed historic preservation ordinance, now being sent to city agencies for comment, would protect an estimated 106 buildings that predate 1910 and scattered about the two-square-mile city. It would also protect other designated buildings the council might deem of unusual architectural or historic merit, although city officials now say they have no such buildings in mind.
Falls Church has lost 19 historic buildings in the last 14 years, most razed to make way for commercial development. A historic district ordinance was proposed seven years ago, but was dropped after it was deemed too restrictive and burdensome by the City Planning Commission and the council.
The proposed historic district, thought to have wide public support and expected to win final council approval sometime this winter, according to vice mayor Robert Hubbell, has some unusual features but would be less restrictive than most other historic districts in the Washington region.
Since 1948, when Falls Church became a city, it has lost more than 75 18th and 19th century buildings, including mansions, farm houses and even relatively humble places, says Hubbell. Included are the house former president Dwight D. Eisenhower and his brother David lived in and the former home of author James Thurber, now a housing subdivision with a memorial street named Thurber Court.
But it was the threatened demolition of one of Falls Church's stately pre-Civil War homes, the Lawton House, that stirred citizens into working for a historic preservation law. That house, on what is now Lawton Street, just off Broad Street (Rte. 7) and near the city's landmark namesake building, the 1767 Falls Church, was to be razed for an extension of Park Street. Citizen efforts prevented the demolition.
While the proposed historic district would be huge, encompassing the entire city, it actually would affect a relatively small number of scattered buildings, says Hubbell, chairman of the citizen ad hoc committee that is proposing the new district.
Owners of a designated historic house could paint it any color they wished, put on a new siding, roof, or sky light and even install solar panels, without the approval of an architectural board of review such as is required in some historic districts.
Only structural changes requiring a city building permit and demolitions would be covered by the ordinance.
Alterations and additions would be permitted but would be required to be "compatible with the period and style of the structure."
And demolitions would not be prohibited. They would just be more difficult. City officials could delay razing a designated historic building and the building's owner could be required to offer the property for sale, at a reasonable price, to anyone who would preserve it.
Creation of the historic district would make extensive state and federal tax benefits possible for owners who restore residential or commercial properties. The Falls Church law, unlike those in most historic districts, would also have a limited effect on abutting properties and even those across the street from one of the 106 or more designated historic buildings.
The council set a public hearing on the proposed historic district for Dec. 12.