A committee studying the Falls Church historic ordinance has recommended that the City Council require owners of houses built before 1911 and other buildings designated as historic to secure permission from the city before making any major building alterations.
The committee of residents and city officials may also suggest that the City Council expand the six-year-old ordinance to protect structures built through 1930, a change that would nearly double the number of residences on the historic register to about 200.
The council expects to hold a public hearing on the issue by fall.
"This is going to be very controversial, because you're telling people how to deal with their structures," said council member Cynthia Garner, chairman of the committee.
As it stands, the city's ordinance requires property owners who want to relocate or raze a historic structure to obtain permission from the Architectural Review Board, a panel of six representatives of the planning and historical commissions and the architectural advisory board.
However, the ordinance does not spell out the city's role in handling partial demolitions and does not address major building alterations, such as additions. As a result, some residents and officials argue, the effectiveness and intent of the ordinance has been undermined by allowing some property owners to seriously alter the appearance of a historic structure, such as by building a large addition or changing the type of roof.
"We have lost historic structures," Garner said. The ordinance has "allowed owners to destroy, even unintentionally, the historic integrity of those structures," she said.
For example, the exterior of Pearson's Funeral Home at 472 N. Washington St. had been altered so extensively since it was built at the beginning of the century, that last winter, despite public pressure, the city yielded to the owner's request to demolish the building. The City Council said at the time that it could not justify saving the building on the basis of any historical value.
Garner's committee proposes requiring an owner of a historic building to seek permission from the review board for making substantial exterior alterations, such as those that might change the size, height, contour or outline of the structure. Other changes, such as repairs, repainting in a different color, or installing antennae or air conditioners, would not require the city's permission.
The review board would be expanded to include four residents with expertise in architecture or history and would have the power to deny alterations that would compromise the architectural or historic integrity of the structure. Affected property owners could appeal review board decisions to the council.
The committee also suggests amending the ordinance to require owners of historic buildings to maintain their properties to prevent substantial deterioration or the city would make the necessary repairs at the owners' expense.
The Historical Commission has suggested that the committee go a step further and recommend that the council designate residential structures built through 1930 as historic. The city has maps that make it easier to date a building to 1930 than to 1911, said Carol Jackson, chairman of the commission, and 1930 marked the end of a construction boom in the city.