After construction of a so-called “spite garage” triggered an uproar last fall, the Alexandria City Council is moving to ensure that property owners keep their arbors, trellises, fences, walls, sheds and garages a respectable distance from their neighbor’s property line.

The council is poised to require such structures to be set back at least five feet if a neighboring dwelling has a basement or first-floor window within three feet of the shared property line.

The change comes too late for Paul and Patrice Linehan, whose kitchen window looks onto a fence and concrete-block structure wall that their neighbor, Gavin Nichols, built two feet from the property line.

Nichols, who built the Linehans’ home and sold it to them 20 years ago, served on a city task force that helped pass an ordinance in 2009 that reduced the setback rule for garages from eight feet to one foot.

The Del Ray Alexandria home of the Linehans, left, sits cheek-to-jowl with Gavin Nichols's new garage. (Patricia Sullivan/TWP)

The Linehans first objected to the construction more than a year ago. Construction began when the Linehans were out of town, and city officials said they missed the deadline that could have stopped the work.

After several reviews last summer, the city’s planning and zoning office and the city attorney determined Nichols’ garage and fence were properly permitted and within the law.

Outraged residents launched an online petition and civic association discussions about whether Nichols could be forced to take down the garage, and also questioned the legality of a converted garage that Nichols uses as an office elsewhere on his property.

Mayor Allison Silberberg (D) called Nichols’ actions “unfortunate and distressing” but said the garage “was within the code at the time it was built.”

The council will vote Saturday on the proposed revision to the zoning law.

The Linehans — he is a federal employee and she works at an educational nonprofit — say the proposed change in the city’s zoning law is good, even though it won’t resolve their case.

“I appreciate the council working pretty swiftly — for government — to make this right,” Patrice Linehan said. “One of our main goals was to make sure this doesn’t happen to anybody else.”