The garage under construction in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria may block the light and air to a neighbor’s kitchen window, but the building permit is legal, the city manager said this week in a memo to the City Council.
The garage being built by owner-architect Gaver Nichols, at 319 E. Monroe Ave., is two feet from the property line, blocking the only first-floor window on that side of Paul and Patrice Linehan’s home.
Nichols previously erected a fence even closer to the Linehans’ home, triggering an epic dispute that has enraged homeowners throughout the area. Nichols later replaced the fence with a trellis in front of the Linehans'’ window, which city inspectors said was allowed.
This week’s memo from City Manager Mark Jinks said city employees “can encourage people to take neighbors’ concerns into account but ultimately we can’t deny a garage permit that meets the letter of the law.”
Jinks rejected an assertion by the Linehans’ attorney that the garage illegally obstructs light and ventilation, saying that city statutes on that matter do not apply and that the law actually “precludes staff from considering” light and ventilation issues in this situation.
Nichols, who designed, built and sold the Linehans’ house to them in the mid-1990s, helped push through a change in local zoning law in 2009 that reduced the required setback from the property line for garages from eight feet to one foot.
Roy Shannon, the Linehans’ attorney, said he and his clients are evaluating whether to appeal the building permit for the garage to the Board of Zoning Appeals or whether to take Nichols to court.
“It’s interesting to me that the memo says the city doesn’t look at light and ventilation when considering these permits,” Shannon said. “You couldn’t tell from the building permit that [the garage] would impact” the Linehans’ house, he said. “You don’t know if he’s going to build a garage with stepped or tiered construction that will let in light. This isn’t a situation where the neighbors can go online and pull down his plans. You have to wait until construction begins to see the impact.”
Nichols secured the building permit for the garage June 3, Jinks’s memo said, and informed the neighbors “within that time frame.” Nichols had applied for and received a permit for the project nearly a year earlier, but that permit expired because Nichols did not begin work on the garage within six months.
Shannon said the Linehans may have gotten a phone call but not a letter about the current permit. He said construction began just before the July 4 holiday, when the Linehans were out of town for a week. The timing is critical because a permit can be appealed within 15 days of the start of construction or within 30 days of the permit’s approval.
The Linehans have said they don’t have time to attend multiple city meetings or track bureaucratic changes, citing full-time jobs that require travel and the responsibilities that come with raising teenage sons.
They said their attempts to meet with city officials last winter to discuss the first permit took six months; Jinks said it was actually three months, with multiple telephone calls and emails.