When architect Gaver Nichols designed three houses on a half-acre next to his home in Alexandria more than 20 years ago, he had a Utopian idea of “shared visual green space” — a physical manifestation of the camaraderie for which the Del Ray neighborhood is known.
It hasn’t worked out that way.
Over the years, owners of the three homes planted trees and shrubs, obstructing the view and carving semiprivate spaces out of the land.
Now Nichols is building a fence and a concrete-block garage about two feet from the property line of his neighbors, Paul and Patrice Linehan, blocking their kitchen window almost completely.
“We’ve gone from a more neighborly era to one of ‘me-me-me,’ ” Nichols, 62, said of the quartet of houses on East Monroe Avenue. “I’m creating on my property my own ‘me’ space. I shouldn’t have to modify my plan to meet his wishes.”
In protest, friends of the Linehans have written posts on Facebook and launched a Change.org petition, calling on the city to halt the construction and make Nichols take the structures down. It is a far cry from the harmony and goodwill that residents of Del Ray say usually exists in their community of bungalows, rowhouses and, more recently, grander homes — a place so beloved that one resident’s musical ode, “A Perfect Day in Del Ray,” has become a minor hit on YouTube.
“Our neighbors are coming to us asking, ‘Can he do this?’ ” said Patrice Linehan, 50, who works for an educational nonprofit group. “What we don’t know is, can he?”
Her allies have taken to calling the new garage and fence a modern-day version of the historic “spite house” that sits 20 blocks away in Old Town Alexandria. That structure, at 523 Queen St., was built in 1830 by a frustrated John Hollensbury, who was so tired of horse-drawn wagon traffic and loiterers clogging the alley between his home and a neighbor’s that he enclosed the seven-foot-wide alley, creating what is reputedly the narrowest house in the nation.
History doesn’t record whether Hollensbury talked his frustrations through with his neighbors before building his spite house. Across town, Nichols has refused to talk with the Linehans — purportedly because the couple declined to take sides during an earlier dispute between Nichols and another neighbor.
The Linehans think Nichols also is miffed because they used a different architect in 2013 to make a major interior change in the house he designed and built, swapping the locations of their kitchen and dining room.
The day after the renovation was completed, the Linehans said, they were awakened at 7 a.m. by the banging of a hammer.
Nichols was building a six-foot fence on the property line.
The city’s Planning and Zoning Department, responding to the Linehans’ complaint, determined that the fence was really a two-panel trellis, which is permitted.
The portion of the structure that can be seen from the kitchen window is made of lattice, but — as the Linehans point out — there is nothing green growing on it. Beyond that section, the trellis reverts to a standard plank fence.
When Nichols notified neighbors last summer about the impending garage construction, the Linehans sent letters and called the city’s planning office. It took six months to schedule a meeting with two high-level staff members, and the couple says the city seems to be dragging its feet in addressing their protests.
“We are not looking for favoritism,” said Paul Linehan, 55, a federal employee. “We just want the city to be open, transparent and fair.”
Planning and Zoning Director Karl Moritz said that Nichols began building the garage in July, with all the legally required permits. Now, however, his office is reviewing whether the building permit was properly granted. Last week, the attorney for the Linehans sent a letter to the city saying the construction illegally deprives his clients of air and light.
“The vast majority of folks in Alexandria are good neighbors and work out differences with each other,” Moritz said. “But it’s a challenge in a city of small lots, when your neighbor’s quality of life depends on what you do on your property.”
Nichols says he converted his existing garage, which is behind and separate from his large home at 319 East Monroe, into a home office years ago. Under local law, he is not allowed to have clients there, but the Linehans say he does.
They point to pictures of people with architectural plans coming and going, captured by a security camera they put on the outside of their home. Nichols objects, saying that the Linehans have put him under surveillance on his own property.
Between 2007 and 2009, Nichols served on a city task force that rewrote some of the city’s zoning laws — including a reduction, from 8 feet to 1 foot, in the setback from the property line required for garages.
He boasts that he knows zoning and building permits rules inside out and says he has noticed a PVC pipe that emerges from the side of the Linehans’ house (the Linehans say it’s a furnace exhaust duct Nichols placed there when he designed and built the residence).
“Mr. Linehan better watch it,” Nichols said. “Because as soon as I go to the state, saying [he’s] violating the fire code, he’s going to have a lot of other trouble.”
Nichols said he’s moving his business from the converted garage to Baltimore. He plans to double the size of the Del Ray structure and turn it into a living space, with a patio and garden in front.
The adjacent new garage, he said, will have beautiful stone facing and be the marvel of the neighborhood. He’s already built a soil berm between his yard and the Linehans’ and planted crape myrtle trees, disrupting what remained of the “shared visual green space.”
“I do plan to probably put a fence up next,” Nichols said.
The Linehans don’t have that option. Their home, and the other two designed by Nichols, have deed restrictions that prohibit fences.