The Town of Occoquan is serious about its back yards.
In recent months, the tiny hamlet has changed course and taken legal and enforcement action against so-called "bump-outs'' -- upper floors of buildings that jut out over backyards. Town zoning officials say the bump-outs should be considered when computing minimum setbacks from property lines.
Builder Rick Elliott said the town's decision has forced him to stop work on new townhouses, even though he had obtained all the proper building permits. He said the ruling has cost him months of time and legal fees. He said the crackdown is motivated less by the letter of the law and more by politically connected neighbors of his townhouses.
After the town's own zoning board gave Elliot a variance allowing the overhangs, the Town Council voted to take the board and Elliott to court.
"I'm building four-story townhouses that dwarf theirs, and they are mad," Elliot said. "I'm convinced they were just trying to hurt me."
Nonsense, the town's mayor and attorney say. The town is challenging Westwynde developers for the same reasons. They say that if the town requires a 20-foot back yard and there is a 3-foot bump-out, the math is clear: 20 minus 3 equals 17.
Martin S. Crim, town attorney, said that land under a cantilever cannot be counted. Otherwise, he said, "You can use a 20-foot cantilever and cover the whole yard."
Crim said the Town Council wasn't suing the board, but simply appealing the board's decision to the Circuit Court, which, he said, granted the town a default judgment after Elliot decided not to fight for the variance.
Elliot said he wasn't seeking a variance, which allows specific exceptions to zoning laws, when he went to the zoning board. Instead, he hoped to appeal a building inspector's ruling barring the overhangs.
But he said he accepted a variance when the board, which had not advertised an appeal hearing, said it couldn't discuss his request for an appeal.
Elliot said he is still waiting for the town's Board of Zoning Appeals to hear his appeal on the facts of the case. He said that the town zoning ordinance doesn't specifically address cantilevers and that other buildings in town have bump-outs.
"It is quite possible that it has occurred in the past," Crim said. "Somebody has to be first. Just because someone else got away with it doesn't make it right."
Elliot said he opted against a risky legal battle and simply bought himself another five feet of back yard. But he said it was an expensive five feet, costing him the price of the land, delays and interest payments on the unfinished homes.
"I got my whole life into this, money-wise," Elliot said. "I don't know if I'm able to sue them or not, but it is costing me money."
Occoquan Mayor Patricia M. Conway said the dispute is not about politics or whim, but simply an attempt to get builders to live up to the law.
"The principle was worth what needed to be done," Conway said. "If we had not done anything, a precedent would have been set. If you allow one to do it, I imagine they are all going to go the same route.''