Fairfax is the only jurisdiction in the Washington region that restricts those dwellings — which include basements and detached “mother-in-law” units — to residents older than 55 or who have a disability. Since the requirements went into effect in 1983, occupancy has been granted to 222 such apartments, which are defined as units with a working stove on properties with single-family homes, county officials say.
Jeff C. McKay (D-At Large), chair of the county’s board, said the cumbersome process for getting an accessory living unit approved — with costs reaching several thousand dollars and permission granted by a county zoning board — probably has driven many in the county to illegally convert their basements or garages into apartments, often with tenants living in crowded conditions. The changes would make approval an administrative process, with a $200 permit fee and other minor costs, McKay said.
“There is a public safety component here that a lot of people are missing,” said McKay, recalling a problem with illegal boardinghouses during the 2000s. He pointed to a 2007 fire inside an illegally converted basement in Springfield, where the electric stove was powered by an upstairs outlet through a jury-rigged series of extension cords.
“If we had in place in those days ways for someone to go through a reasonable process to make sure we could inspect the unit . . . that fire wouldn’t have happened,” McKay said.
Homeowners groups say easing the restrictions would hurt neighborhoods where street parking is limited, despite a recommendation before the county board to require would-be landlords to prove they have sufficient parking on their properties.
During a recent public hearing, several homeowners accused the Democratically controlled board of wanting to wedge higher density into neighborhoods not built to accommodate more people.
“These changes will impact the character of the neighborhood, the density of the neighborhood and the overall quality of life,” resident Fran Wallingford told the board.
Several county supervisors said they support the recommended changes, with a few tweaks. Some want the county to find a way to ensure that accessory living units are indeed affordable to lower-income residents.
Supervisor Walter L. Alcorn (D-Hunter Mill) said he is concerned that members of homeowners associations have deed covenants on their houses that may have stricter rules for renting to tenants. He wants the county to alert homeowners groups when someone in their community seeks approval for a living unit so they can figure out what is allowed.
“You don’t want to have a situation where the county says yes and, then, two years down the road, the homeowner says: ‘Uh oh, I’m in violation of my covenant,’ ” Alcorn said.
Supervisor Pat Herrity (Springfield), the board’s sole Republican, said the accessory living unit proposal is a material change to county policy that shouldn’t be part of a zoning upgrade.
“I’m afraid this will create a big problem in Fairfax County,” said Herrity, who opposes the change.
In recent years, other jurisdictions in the region have adopted more-lenient revisions for that type of affordable housing, allowing detached “accessory dwelling units” to be built on homeowners’ properties.
So far, the changes haven’t had much of an impact, according to data compiled by Fairfax officials.
Maryland’s Montgomery County has approved about 100 accessory dwelling units since it began allowing those homes in three residential zones of the county in 2019. In the District, 216 such permits have been issued since it similarly amended its zoning ordinance in 2016.
In Fairfax — where the zoning ordinance already allows homeowners to rent rooms to two unrelated tenants without special permission from the county — the change to accessory living units is relatively minor, said Michelle Krocker, director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance.
Yet, “people are up in arms,” she said. “They think they’re going to have numbers and numbers of families moving into their community, and that’s just not going to happen.”
The proposed changes to the zoning ordinance also revisit restrictions on flags in the county. That initially drew heated opposition from veterans groups, who were opposed to a change that would have limited the size of flags allowed in residential and commercial areas.
County officials have since changed that proposal to recommend a size restriction of 50 square feet — the size of American flags used to cover a veteran’s casket during a funeral — and the height of flagpoles to 25 feet in residential areas and 60 feet on all other lots.
Homeowners groups say they’re also against a change that would ease restrictions on home-based businesses — a nod by county officials to the effects of the pandemic, during which many residents have been working from their homes.
Under the current ordinance, home businesses such as a beauty salon or a psychiatrist’s office require a special-use permit that costs $16,375.
The proposal would lower the cost of the permit to $435 for many businesses, with requirements for the health department to sign off on businesses inside homes that rely on wells or septic tanks.
Bill Barfield, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations, noted that a home-based business can advertise itself with a sign or a flag, which he argued will damage “the ambiance” of suburban neighborhoods.
The effort to upgrade the zoning ordinance began in 2018, with 100 public meetings held for community input, county officials said.
Barfield argued the pandemic has made it harder for residents to learn about the process, especially after those hearings began to be conducted remotely.
“The bottom line is many citizens feel these changes have not been fully vetted with the public and fully researched,” partially due to the pandemic, he said. “What’s the hurry? Especially in these covid times?”